Tech.Maven: What if CIO’s shouldn’t have a place on the board?

A confession for a Friday – I’ve been struggling with a concept that’s been around for years. It’s the idea that CIO’s (Chief Information Officers, or IT Directors in UK parlance) should have a place on the board. In principle this makes sense, given just how strategic both information and technology are supposed to be these days. Equally senior technologists can hit a glass ceiling in their own careers, which can be frustrating, but perhaps not as annoying as the fact that IT still isn’t taken as seriously as it could be by the business side of the house.

When I worked at Freeform Dynamics, I was involved in studies reviewing the state of IT in organisations of various kinds. In general (though I paraphrase well beyond the bounds of statistical acceptability) we saw three kinds of organisation. In the first group IT was appreciated as being of strategic value, and the business reaped high levels of benefit from its technology estate. At the other end of the scale and in roughly equal proportion tended to be companies that saw IT as a cost centre, perhaps unsurprisingly these organisations derived far less value from their tech.

In the middle were the people who weren’t sure whether IT was of strategic value or not – and in all honesty, they might as well have been in the third camp. Technology requires effort, and if you’re not going to commit fully to delivering high-value IT, you’re unlikely to reap the rewards.

With this in mind, it’s not hard to arrive at a conclusion that a seat on the board for the top IT guy would be of significant value. “Get me at the table,” goes the argument, “and I will be able to argue the case for technology. Get me at the table and I’ll get the clout I need to drive IT into the business and demonstrate real value.” While this is a perfectly valid stance, the trouble is that it is putting the cart before the horse. In the days of the industrial revolution, would the person in charge of all the lathes expect a board-level position?

Another argument for the board-level CIO centres on the ‘I’ – information – which is (we are told) a company’s biggest asset. But again, just because something is a huge asset of strategic business value, that doesn’t make it in itself worthy of the boardroom. Indeed, given that the ultimate responsibility for assets lies with the Chief Financial Officer (CFO), this is perhaps an argument for having the CIO report straight to the CFO. Heaven forbid, though it is quite common.

Once again, the problem isn’t so much that the ‘thing’ shouldn’t be treated strategically – quite the opposite. However the ‘thing’ itself is not the business, any more than the car pool or the buildings. The operations director of a company I used to work for referred to himself as ‘head of bogs, drains and car parks’, and while he was on the board, it was pretty clear in his mind that his job was to keep costs down, not try to overflow the importance of such things.

However, and here’s the rub, it is fundamentally important that both technology, and information, should be treated at board level. Ha-ha! you say, he’s contradicting himself now, we do need a CIO on the board! Well, no, I don’t believe we do, or at least there is the root of my struggle. I actually believe we need technology to be considered strategically by all board members; the act of having a separate individual responsible for IT immediately creates a communications requirement that shouldn’t have to exist. It would be like someone sitting there responsible for the pencils.

Businesses are driven by strategy, and value is perceived by those who drive. Business value based conversations are very much for the board; new opportunities, new products and markets, companies to buy, elements to divest and indeed technologies to be adopted or dropped. These are all part of the same conversation, but it is primarily a business conversation. To have a person responsible for strategy on the board – if not the CEO, a direct report – there’s nothing wrong with that as long as the role is setting business strategy which may or may not encompass technology strategy at any point in time.

The principle is sound, and it is borne out by examples such as ‘The changing role of the CIO’ – which are so prevalent on the Web. Perhaps the landscape will one day have evolved so considerably that, while the title remains, the role will have become far more wed to the business. However, and however competent the people in the task are now and in the future, it may well be that success can only be achieved by having a strategic business role which incorporates IT, rather than a strategic IT role which understands the business. It may well be that we need a new one altogether – the recent emergence of titles such as ‘Director of Business Enablement’ could be a sign that things are heading in this direction.

Or maybe we’ll just stick with how things are – with frustrated senior technologists wondering how they can convince disinterested peers in the business about how important it is to have a dialogue. Perhaps this really is the only possible route – in which case expect it to be long, tiring and without any real guarantee of ultimate success.

Tech.Maven: What if CIO’s shouldn’t have a place on the board?

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