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Alan Cane 
Financial Times
19 March 2008

It's much too early to write off the role of the CIO 

Last year, Boots, the UK high street chemist, and the retailer House of Fraser did away with the position of chief information officer, a move which heightened speculation that this animal, only recently evolved from less exalted creatures, was on the way to becoming an endangered species.
 
The apparent logic behind their decision was that the company's computer systems could be managed perfectly satisfactorily by a data processing specialist. The job of aligning IT strategy with the objectives of the business would fall to the chief financial officer.
 
This, of course, mirrors the pattern seen in the early days of corporate computing, when processing was often limited to financial records and transactions - very much the preserve of the CFO - and technologists in white coats were simply required to keep the machines running.
 
Abandoning the CIO requires, of course, that the CFO is IT literate and has a clear vision of how IT fits into the company's overall strategy - a vision he or she can communicate to the board in comprehensible terms.
 
The business academic Michael Earl locates the emergence of the CIO at a point in the late 1980s when data processing was transformed into information technology.
 
More than a decade ago he wrote: "As the size of the IT budget increased, it became difficult to resist the notion that a corporate officer should be appointed to ensure that the information resources were efficiently and effectively deployed."
 
Even then there were doubts about the status of the position of CIO, with humourists suggesting the acronym stood for "Career is Over". To some extent, the problem has been that information resources are proving mightily resistant to being deployed "efficiently and effectively".
 
Indeed, to look at many of the public issues that now constrain the growth and reputation of the IT department, you could be forgiven for thinking that much of senior IT management - the CIO, the IT director, the data processing manager - is incompetent.
 
Now that, of course, is a nonsense. While there are duffers in every profession, most CIOs are highly capable, conscientious and skilled.
 
Yet the criticisms persist, among them the fact that many IT departments take inadequate measures to protect their data. There is insufficient back-up and disaster recovery. Staff are allowed access to systems when carrying devices such as USB drives that would permit them to make off with vast swathes of data in their pocket.
 
Proper security procedures for staff who leave the organisation are also not followed, opening up the threat of blackmail or worse. Regulatory measures are flouted. Data storage is inadequate and retrieval of information for legal or other purposes slow or impossible.
 
Most damning, data centres are not managed in the conventional sense of the word.
 
A recent survey suggested many CIOs have no inventory of the equipment on their premises. They may have too many or too few software licences. Some parts of the business may be running pirated software without their knowledge.
 
And they will almost certainly have too many servers, most of them under-utilised, a consequence of the practice of adding a server each time an application is installed.
 
Technologies are available to solve most of these problems, but no wonder many experts regard data centres as poorly managed and out of control. There are a complex set of reasons for this situation: the fact that the data processing department is often a "firm within a firm"; pressures to take on increasing workloads; new and complex systems; and budgets that can see-saw wildly (we are in a descending period at present).
 
Surely, then, CIOs should be working towards creating an ideal IT set-up? Anita Chandraker of PA Consulting counsels against such a strategy. "Faced with complex IT landscapes and business needs, one of the most common pitfalls is to assume there is such a thing as an ideal IT set-up," she says.
 
"Today's 'ideal' set-up will probably be redundant in a few years. The pace of technology and business change means the days of designing and delivering a suite of ideal applications, infrastructure and services are long gone," she explains.
 
Data processing, in fact, had only just established itself as a "proper" industry with ways of working and codes of practice when it was flung into upheaval by the microprocessor-led IT revolution and it has yet to come to terms with this new situation.
 
It seems to me there is a gap between the leading edge of technology and ordinary data processing practice every bit as real as the digital divide between developed and developing nations. For the foreseeable future, it will not narrow.
 
So Ms Chandraker is right: forget attempts to forge an "ideal" set-up and concentrate on finding ways to use technology to expedite business change appropriate to today's trading environment.
 
It's a formula that should keep CIOs in business for years to come.

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