CIOs never cease to amaze me. And I mean that in both a positive and negative sense. On the positive side we have CIOs such as Stephen Kneebone, Phil Jordan and Christina Scott who topped this year's CIO 100. These CIOs are using technology to help transform their organisations. They are both business and technology leaders, and they are contributing much more than technical expertise to their organisations.
As well as transforming their organisations' technology environments all three CIOs are also playing a key role in the digital development of their organisations. Kneebone, for example, is leading the delivery of Nissan's on-board vehicle telematic systems, which include Facebook and Google Search facilities. Jordan meanwhile has been leading a number of digital initiatives for Telefonica, including implementing Big Data solutions and Scott is developing scalable APIs to enable other companies to integrate the FT's content into their own systems.
These are good CIOs doing a good job for their companies. Through my work as an adviser to Boards, CEOs and CIOs I have seen other examples of good CIOs. Due to the nature of what I do, however, I more often see bad examples of CIOs in operation and occasionally some things that are plain ridiculous.
About six months ago I was asked by the CEO of a fairly well known UK wide business to review the company's current IT platform and plans for future development. The majority of the organisation's current platform had been developed in-house over the last 10 years. But these were not systems that one could consider to be sources of competitive advantage. For instance, the bespoke development included a content management system. Now, while the company's websites were an important part of its brand recognition, market positioning and sales process, they were not in any way unique in terms of what they did, and neither did they need to be. The reason given by the CEO for building a bespoke system was that old chestnut of not being able to find anything that met all their needs when they looked at the market.
Similar explanations were given for many of the other systems that had been built by the in-house team despite it appearing that off-the-shelf systems would have met most, if not all, of the organisation's needs. The business had experienced a number of significant issues with its in-house developed systems, including late deliveries, bugs, lack of functionality and increasing difficulty in being able to make the systems do what the business needed. The technology was over ten year's old and so finding people with the right skills to maintain and develop the system was also proving difficult and, as a result, the business was reliant on a few key individuals. The rest of the business was frustrated and felt that the systems were limiting its ability to compete. The CIO's answer was to migrate the systems to a newer technology and continue the in-house development! During my discussions with the CEO I discovered that the CIO's background was in development. And so it became obvious that the company's existing IT set-up and its strategy for building a platform for the digital age had been in large part been influenced by its CIO's background, preferences and comfort zone.
More recently I encountered another business that was about to embark on a major transformation of its IT platform and department. In this case many of the IT services had previously been outsourced. But, after experiencing some difficulties with the provider, the newly arrived CIO had decided to insource everything. The reason for insourcing (as opposed to appointing a new provider) was that the IT function "did not have the maturity" to manage an outsourced provider. So rather than developing this capability the CIO had decided to build a whole new set of capabilities around IT support, desktop, servers and networking and other non-core activities that could (and should) be easily obtained from partners.
During my discussions with a member of the company's executive team I was surprised to find out that the business was planning to build its own CRM system during 2015. In a follow-up discussion to determine why this decision had been made I was told that it was part of the company's plan to build a system that covered every part of the business, including finance, HR and operations, as well as managing its customer relationships. There is nothing unique about this business in these areas, it is one of many players in its markets and will not differentiate itself through its finance, HR or CRM systems. The real source of competitive advantage will come from how it integrates systems and data to create a seamless customer experience across multiple channels, and how efficiently and effectively it provides services through its mobile workforce. There may be a need for it to develop some niche applications as part of its platform but it certainly does not need to develop its own enterprise-wide system.
You will probably not be surprised to hear that the new CIO at this business had previously been a developer and had very limited experience of working with partners to deliver outsourced services. It is another example of an organisation's IT strategy being primarily driven by the experience, (limited) knowledge and bias of its technology leader. There is a worrying theme developing here.
Most CIOs hold a very privileged and influential position within their organisations. They set the overall direction, standards and structure of the organisation's technology platform and IT function. And, in most cases, no one else in the organisation is able to challenge or validate the decisions they make. They therefore have a duty to identify the most appropriate architecture, technologies and partners from all possible options and not just those with which they are familiar and/or comfortable.
CIOs and their teams need to keep up-to-date with technology, vendor offerings and new delivery models. What may have worked 10 or even five years ago is unlikely to be the right approach today. Technology moves on, vendor offerings mature and business needs change. CIOs who do not keep up with these developments are failing in their duty to the organisation. And these are the CIOs who will eventually be side-lined in favour of other executives or replaced altogether by a new CIO who is open to new thinking and ideas, and who are not constrained by their own experience and preferences.