I recently attended the Second Cloud Computing World Forum in London, a well organised combination of trade fair and conference focused on a young but key development for our industry. I chaired the conference’s second day, but attended the first day to ensure I was well prepared.

The challenge of the cloud is that the marketing folk have taken control, and once again we run the risk of confirming a correctly earned reputation for over-promising and under-delivering. The opening keynote of the opening day was by a senior player from McAfee – though by common consent in the corridors of the conference we were treated to a marketing presentation with little pretence of the kind of broad overview and constructive insight that a keynote should deliver.

In a positive contrast, the opening keynote on the day I chaired was by an HP Fellow, Jamie Erbes, who drew on her significant breadth of experience to create and share a set of insights into the key dimensions of the role of the CIO in the age of the cloud.

At the core of Ms Erbes’ thinking was the transformation of the IT industry from the business of IT Services into the business of Business Services, and the cloud is very much about the emergence of a virtual market in directly-sourceable technology-enabled business services. She positioned the role of the CIO accordingly: as service broker for the enterprise, focused on the sourcing, integration and management of the technology-enabled business services that the enterprise needs to operate. She also recognised the parallel transformational challenge this requires of the CIO, leading the enterprise to escape the restraints of legacy systems so as to have an IT infrastructure underwriting its supply chains.

The agenda for this contemporary CIO, she said, is firstly to “design services that are desirable, valuable”; secondly to “make services delivery flexible, predictable”; thirdly to “make these services consumable” (i.e. to enable the cloud model of services sourced on-demand, as required); and fourthly to “organise around these services”. The CIO “leads the disruption” (the required business transformation agenda) and “becomes the central broker of services”.

Ms Erbes put a particular emphasis on the vital need to use the disruption of the transformational exercise to break down the functional and business silos that the restraints of older IT systems make almost inevitable – so re-shaping the landscape of the services the business exploits into a tight alignment with delivery of its business objectives and strategies.

So here is the contemporary CIO as master operational strategist, playing a key role in the senior team in positioning the business for success.

Listening to Ms Erbes’ presentation, I was struck by the insight it gave into a recent talking point. Some commentators celebrated Tesco’s appointment of Philip Clarke as the promotion of a heavyweight CIO to the role of CEO and argued that this was now to be the new trend.

I beg to differ. Mr Clarke is first and foremost a retailer to his core, a Tesco lifer whose career started with packing the shelves in his local store. Tesco identified his high-flyer potential early on, and he worked variously as store manager, buyer and marketer before being appointed to the board in 1998, tasked with overseeing Tesco’s supply chain. The IT remit was added a year later, followed by international operations in 2004.

The logic of these increasingly broad responsibilities became clear with his development of what has become known as ‘Tesco in a Box’ – a strategic toolkit to underwrite Tesco’s determined moves into new markets. Management Today describes the ‘Box’ as being partly about IT infrastructure (putting in place tried and tested systems), but also shared values (how to treat customers and earn their loyalty) and standard processes (from loyalty card schemes to own-label brands).

CEOs and CIOs will learn from Terry Leahy

So the insight from Clarke’s promotion is not that CIOs are now destined to move into CEOs’ shoes, but that a high-potential leader in a vertical where the enabling capabilities of contemporary technology are integral to the competitive potential of that business, may well be given the IT portfolio to better guide its effective integration into the wider business strategies he or she is being charged with developing and delivering.

So back to Ms Erbes’ analysis of the role of the CIO in the emerging era of the cloud as master operational strategist, shaping the landscape of the technology-enabled services the business exploits into a tight alignment with delivery of its business objectives. Tesco was there ahead of the game – Philip Clarke, a retailer to the core, and identified early on as a master operational strategist of great potential, was proud, I am sure, to take Tesco’s IT portfolio under his guidance – and determined to exploit it to the full in creating ‘Tesco in a Box’ as one key factor in Tesco’s rapid international expansion. But let us be clear why he is now to be Sir Terry Leahy’s successor next spring.

About the author:

Richard Sykes was vice president of IT at ICI in the 1990s and is now a consultant