When Paul Caris, CIO at global law firm Eversheds, decided to equip the firm’s lawyers with iPads, he met with a lot of resistance. “If I had listened to anybody along the way I wouldn’t have done it,” he reveals. “My own team was trying to tell me it was a folly. They were rolling out the usual excuses about security and supportability.”

Undeterred, Caris initially piloted 15 iPads, then added more and more. Two years later, 500 of the firm’s fee-earners have iPads, all equipped with full access to their emails, calendar and a cloud-based archiving system. Deploying the software cost nothing, and the users provide their own support, through an intranet forum that allows them to collaborate on best practice and share fixes.

So is Caris a new breed of CIO? The IT landscape in most businesses already looks very different from that of five years ago. Applications and storage are gradually moving to the cloud, and software-as-a-service providers are taking away some of the pain of day-to-day management.

These technology trends are putting the ‘I’ back into CIO, as CIOs can focus increasingly on information as an asset that has to be protected and managed for the organisation, instead of focusing on technology.

Caris believes that IT needs to be led by what the business wants.

“I want to change the whole ethos of my internal IT department, so that when anything does pop up, we say ‘How can we make this work with our systems and network?’ rather than, ‘If we can’ or ‘Should we prevent it?’”

It’s not a question of allowing a business free-for-all: devices can be wiped remotely and the data on them is encrypted. But it is an approach that values agility above consistency.

“We’ve moved away from trying to standardise everything and allowed a totally bespoke IT experience where the individual chooses what the best product is,” says Caris.

“Why should I force a workflow engine on them if they can find an app on the iPad that suits the way they work more efficiently?”

Allowing business users to take charge of app procurement and technical support has freed up the IT function to concentrate on developing innovative custom apps, such as one that enables users to turn their PCs on remotely from their BlackBerry phones so that it can be fully logged on and ready to use when they arrive at their desks in the morning.

Eversheds also makes extensive use of the cloud, and this has freed up the IT function to focus its efforts on the needs of its fee-earners. A new job role of Solution Designer has been created: solution designers are embedded in different practice and sector groups within the firm, enabling them to work directly with the fee-earners to design solutions from scratch.

“We don’t just develop technology solutions, we sit and work out what our end-to-end client proposition is and where technology can play a part in solving the fee-earners’ daily struggle, but also our clients’ issues as well,” says Caris.

Clients have been helped to implement a collaborative cloud-based system that enables them to work with Eversheds lawyers with minimal overhead to their own IT function.

Keith Wallington, chief customer officer of email management firm Mimecast, believes that with more ‘lights-on’ tasks left to users or suppliers, IT people are starting to think more about the information that flows through the business and how best to surface it and make it useful to their staff.

The ability to retrieve, analyse and apply business data effectively is so important that, in future, Wallington believes that this will the principal job of the CIO and IT function. The new breed of CIO will be a data custodian, focused on the benefits the business can derive from the wealth of data at its disposal.

“The IT person might have been staring at the Exchange server and making sure it was up. The information analyst CIO type of person is looking at the data and asking, ‘How do I find the trend and how do I make that valuable to my company?’,” says Wallington.

Value analysis

Alys Woodward, research director at analyst IDC, agrees that there are major benefits to be gained from a focus on data. “When you get business analytics right, the value is huge: the increased revenue and reduced cost can be phenomenal, but improving your decision-making is a journey rather than a single step,” she says. In particular, she believes that there is huge value to be gained from the wealth of data available from social media: information that can reveal how customers are responding to changes in a product, for example, or what they are saying about the company’s call centre.

The difficulty, she says, is that it’s a journey companies often put off. “They know they want to do it, they know they should do it, they know they don’t have enough information. But in order to really get their hands round the problem, they’ve got such a lot to think about: it’s so much more complicated than a traditional technology implementation.”

Gartner’s 2012 CEO and senior business executive survey reports a disconnect between business leaders and data-led innovation. “Despite having good answers on their tactical needs for better information, we are concerned that CEOs don’t see or understand the disruptive forces of digitisation that lie ahead for them. A significant proportion of CEOs could not name a new type of information likely to disrupt their industry,” reads the report, adding that few CEOs asked to name their innovation leader mentioned their CIO. “How then can the CEO be assured of getting the strategy right when digital trends dictate industry shifts?”

But the price for IT of keeping the Exchange server going, while putting off the problem of what to do with data, is that the business increasingly acts independently.

Consumerisation means business users are using personal devices to access and download free applications including Gmail and Dropbox. A 2012 Gartner survey for Mimecast entitled Generation Gmail concluded: “Individuals are aware of the risks of sending work documents outside the corporate email environment but this awareness is not translating into behaviour change as a significant proportion still believe it to be an acceptable practice.”

Free and easy

The risk here is that, while business users may be deriving some value from free apps, IT is left fighting a rearguard action, trying to keep data secure and picking up the pieces when things go wrong.

A proactive approach is for IT to develop its own apps. Ovum analyst Richard Absalom argues that publicly available apps are often of limited business value, not only because of the security risks but because, they are too generic.

“Where you get the real value is through developing apps for line of business. These have to be for very specific use cases, because you can do certain things with tablets that you can’t do with other devices. Custom apps are taking off a lot more – we’re seeing a lot of app stores being developed and companies making a business out of developing applications.”

CIOs are looking at the business’s requirements for new, bespoke mobile apps and responding accordingly with solutions that are tailored to specific requirements but meet security and compliance needs, Absalom says.

“The CIO’s attitude should be about opening up and assessing new ideas from across the business,” he argues. At the same time, he says, business users should no longer feel free to go it alone. “When they’re going into a new project, business users should always have IT in from the very beginning. It goes both ways.”

Caris’s approach may seem unrealistic for CIOs still bogged down by cost-cutting and day-to-day administrative headaches, but it does give an indication of how the business/IT relationship might develop. As users take responsibility for their own IT, so IT becomes more responsive to the business. As Caris says, “Once the CIO has got the basics right and it’s all humming, you justify a seat at the table, and all of a sudden the ability to transform your business comes within your reach.”