Incoming: A More Relevant Chief Information Office

December 1, 2016
By Lt. Gen. Mike Basla, USAF (Ret.)

Changes in information technology and the capabilities it delivers are commonplace across business. We know changes will only continue, offering opportunities for improved operations and greater efficiencies. The problem is that chief information officers, who are charged with managing and delivering information technology services, often operate on procedures, structures and processes developed many years ago, in an entirely different technology era.

Consequently, this role has become less relevant, although it is critical to the success of an organization—just not in its current form. The chief information officer, or CIO, must become more agile and shift focus from providing day-to-day information technology support to adding value to the bottom line, improving mission effectiveness and delivering profit.

This transformation can begin with the CIO shedding some legacy responsibilities. Most CIO staffs deliver common information technology services from back offices. Providing these services, with their heavy infrastructure burden and significant labor output, no longer makes economic sense. In most cases, CIOs would serve their organizations better by acquiring those services from off-premises, third-party providers with proven dependability and advanced security. CIOs must recognize this reality and aggressively incorporate this change into organizational plans and operations to make their limited budget resources available instead for more advanced technologies.

Another legacy CIO characteristic that must change is the physical location of offices. Traditionally, and for good reason, CIO staffs were situated close to the equipment they supported but away from mainstream operations. Information technology professionals were seen when a new employee came on board or when a customer experienced a problem. This isolated the CIO and hindered the formation of strong relationships, resulting in missed opportunities. The CIO should be integrated with the rest of the leadership team, preferably within the C-suite’s top echelon of leaders. This would provide the CIO more opportunities to incorporate new ideas and technology considerations into the organization’s decision processes. 

Internal operations support remains critical. As automation tools and outsourced services take care of most daily tasks, services such as cybersecurity should remain—and grow—in-house. Intellectual property and identity theft are common and can cripple an organization. As work forces have become more mobile, these threats have become more severe. A robust cybersecurity office is critical to defend against such threats and promote organizational success.

Today, being technologically savvy is not enough for CIOs. Increasingly, others are technically inclined, and some offices across organizations may prefer to use their own subject matter experts to meet specific internal needs. To reverse this trend and enhance their value, CIOs and their employees must master the workings of organizational departments and form stronger partnerships with department leaders. Then, by remaining current on cutting-edge technologies, CIOs can better serve internal customers by bringing them informed alternatives and analysis for acquisitions and automation. They can then follow up and provide assistance with training, maintaining and sustaining newly acquired capabilities. By actively engaging in operations, the CIO’s role is transformed into a resourceful collaborator who delivers capabilities that satisfy broader corporate needs. 

At the highest strategic level, CIOs need to have thorough knowledge of an organization’s objectives, goals and strategies. To do so, the CIO must participate in key discussions about success factors and propose ways to leverage new information technologies that help decision makers measure progress. Accessing, collecting and analyzing internal information offers a means to build a company’s competitive advantage. The CIO is well-positioned to lead such efforts. Taking up these value-added roles will help CIOs move from directing cost centers to generating revenue. 

The CIO of tomorrow needs to change today. He or she must start by looking up and out versus down and in and strive to become a revenue-generating partner who keeps in close contact with department heads across an organization. CIOs need to understand corporate challenges, contribute to decision making and leverage information age technologies that add value to the bottom line. In today’s competitive world, CIOs must deliver real value or they and their teams risk becoming expenses that organizations can no longer afford.

Lt. Gen. Mike Basla, USAF (Ret.), the former chief of information dominance and chief information officer of the U.S. Air Force, is a senior vice president and Air Force client executive for CACI. The views expressed here are his alone.

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