The difference between a good CIO and a great CIO

By Josef Langerman, Professor of Practice at the University of Johannesburg, and Technology Executive at Standard Bank Group.

Today’s Chief Information Officer (CIO) is challenged by unparalleled degrees of ambiguity and uncertainty.

To perform the role successfully is like trying to sail home in a tropical storm through mountainous seas. Dropping sails is suicidal. Sailing on is frightening, but a necessity.

But to sail recklessly without paying attention to surroundings may be as fatal. Navigating the organisation through these turbulent times requires different skills, mind-sets, and approaches from the future-fit CIO.

In this era of technology-driven change, CIOs are at the centre of transforming their organisations. Gone are the days when the CIO just built and operated an IT landscape, as directed by the business, with a clear separation between responsibilities.

Many CxOs have become more tech-savvy, encroaching on the CIO’s sexy work of formulating technology strategy and tactics.

The opposite can also happen, with CxOs placing the entire burden of responding to technology-related change and disruption on the CIO, abdicating their responsibilities in the successful execution of initiatives to digitise business models and customer engagement, leverage big data, preserve secure and confidential access, exploit artificial intelligence and robotics, etc.

This makes for an extremely complex and treacherous environment.

The foundation for any CIO is to understand and execute the core responsibilities, those things that need to happen daily to keep the organisation running. This includes ensuring all systems keep performing reliably, resources are used efficiently and effectively (time, money, infrastructure), security, investment management, and operational planning.

Doing this well won’t necessarily lead to promotion or a big bonus, but chronic failure will certainly get you fired. Many CIOs fall out of favour because they couldn’t keep their systems performing or dramatically overshot their budgets.

Running a tight ship

A good CIO will run a tight ship, achieving not just these necessary outcomes but also some innovation and transformation of the organisation, albeit limited in extent and impact.

Crucial to success is the ability to forge good working relationships and partnerships with other stakeholders in the business. Great CIOs become trusted, indispensable partners and advisors. They have a seat at the top table, helping the organisation to chart its course.

A great CIO will add additional strings to their bow. Technologies like Cloud, Omnichannel, Big Data, Artificial Intelligence, and the Internet of Things are among the basic technologies of the digital age and the CIO should understand how these technologies can both disrupt and transform their organisation.

They must survey the landscape, understand the broad context and trends, and then interpret what it means for their business and organisation. To transform the organisation from the era of business-IT alignment and selling products and services to an integrated organisation that places meeting customers’ needs at the centre of everything while being both agile and responsive as well as efficient is key.

At this juncture, a major pitfall that CIOs must avoid is to implement technology just because it is the current big thing. If technology adoption does not shift the dials of customer experience, operational excellence, or employee engagement then its implementation was a waste of time and money.

These CIOs will inspire people to work towards their vision for the company. Many of the seasoned CIOs I have dealt with aspire to create a legacy of progressive culture in their organisations, as well as operational excellence and modernised technology landscape.

This may be deemed “soft change” but it is arguably the hardest change, and precious few get this right. To have any chance of success, they must make personal changes, overcome their own aversion to risk, fear, of failure and need for control. Management culture did not reward failure in the past, which makes this type of personal change exceptionally difficult.

The truly exceptional CIOs are those whose focus and impact transcend their own organisation’s goals and contribute to the greater good and betterment of society. Talking with CIOs and CEOs in South Africa, and further afield across the continent, this is a strong theme.

Those CIOs that build their industries, societies, and countries are the truly exceptional CIOs. This represents the most profound and meaningful transformation as it will alleviate poverty and create a better life for all. Movements and trends are emerging, such as IT4D (IT for Development) and Society 5.0, that will shape and drive this transformation.

Technology can influence societies for the better and CIOs can be at the vanguard of this movement. These leaders channel their intention and attention away from their own needs and to the greater goal of building a great company for the benefit of not just their shareholders but their societies.

A good CIO runs a tight ship, a great CIO transforms the ship, and an exceptional CIO doesn’t just transform the ship but also the seas of society on which they sail. Pursuing this transformation that goes beyond the harnessing of modern technology and pursuit of operational excellence is a compass to help the CIO steer the organisation through the storm.

This is an opinion piece.

Now read: How CIOs can ensure their company is “future fit”

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The difference between a good CIO and a great CIO