Tech leaders struggle to paint a strategic IT vision
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Tech leaders struggle to paint a strategic IT vision

Mark Shapland — September 2016
CIOs are uncertain about their ability to show how IT delivers a strategic vision for their business, according to research

New research by global executive recruitment firm Robert Half suggests that the majority of CIOs are still struggling to be taken seriously as a contributor to their company’s strategic vision.

The survey of 100 UK-based CIOs found that IT leaders were still being held back by day-to-day frustrations such as a lack of funding and staffing challenges — meaning they have less time to influence and implement strategy at the highest level.

Around 30% said under-investment in IT and related resources was limiting their ability to be a strategic partner to the business. A shortage of talent and skills was identified as a limiting factor by almost a quarter of respondents. And 13% simply lacked the time to take a strategic viewpoint.

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Commenting on the research Neil Owen, director, Robert Half Technology, says: “The digital transformation agenda is creating a need for CIOs who can move away from day-to-day operational tasks to add value as strategic partners to the business.

“Given the importance of the CIO in all organizations’ ongoing programs of change, it’s vital that IT directors have the right mix of resources in place to handle operational work while helping the business to exploit new technology to build better business processes. However, it seems that CIOs feel they are being held back from this change in role by the pressure on technology and people resources at their disposal, and potentially by their ability to build a strategic vision for IT.”

That is certainly a sentiment echoed by other IT leaders. Alain Fontaine, CIO for Luxembourg-headquartered real estate advertising company atHome Group, says one of the major issues is keeping up with the pace of new technology and working out what will add value to the company.

With CIOs responsible for a mix of both cutting-edge digital initiatives and traditional systems, Fontaine says the role can be as taxing as it is fulfilling.

“To me, the single biggest limitation can be becoming overwhelmed by the pace at which technology advances. It seems to have become easy to be impressed by every hot new product and approach that comes along. Look at how fast the tech world has evolved in the realms of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) recently. So you have to keep asking yourself: ‘Where do you want to be in five years’ time?’”
Using freelance talent

Not having enough staff with the right skills is another major issue shared by CIOs.

Compared to other industries IT has managed to build up a skilled freelance workforce, who can plug gaps, but Andy Caddy, CIO at health club group Virgin Active, says this also comes with its own set of problems. Caddy believes that in order to build a strong team, freelance workers should be kept to a minimum, with talented staff remunerated for their work and loyalty.

“I think it has to be a 70/30 rule – permanent staff need to outnumber contractors. If it’s the other way around then you have problems. Project managers and business analysts in particular must be full-time workers – a company cannot afford to have that kind of knowledge leave.”

But according to the Robert Half survey, the skills gap is not just among the rank and file. Many CIOs continue to see their roles as functional rather than strategic.

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Lack of strategic vision

When asked about their strong points, 62% of respondents believed they had solid analytical skills, 53% said they were good leaders and 51% argued they communicated well with stakeholders such as partners in business and suppliers. However, a surprisingly low 40% said their strength lay in their strategic vision for how IT adds value to the business.

While this leaves the majority of CIOs surveyed showing a lack of confidence in their ability to share a strategic vision for IT, it’s perhaps not surprising considering they have never been given the opportunity to do so.

According to Charlie Grubb, associate director at Robert Half, it highlights a necessary evolution in the CIO’s role. “The reality is that some CIOs still lack the ability to think at the highest strategic level. A CIO must now feel comfortable communicating across the business — they can’t spend their time in a silo or in the server room.”

While some CIOs thrive on the challenge of digital transformation, embracing increased responsibility and power, others have been slow to leave the back office.

Caddy says: “There are still those with a traditional focus who take comfort from just ticking the boxes. But there has been a seismic shift in recent years and this way of thinking is dying out. The role is much more consultative now. It is up to the CIO to break down the vision for management while explaining the impact of technology and how it helps them reach an end goal in a clear and succinct language.”

Fortunately, modern technology has become so powerful that showing how a vision can become reality has never been easier, he adds.

“There are plenty of ways of demonstrating a pilot scheme that were not possible 10 years ago. For instance, you can show management an app on how to change a firm’s expenses system by scanning in receipts and signatures. There are many inventive options like this to make your vision work. But you must always take the trouble to build relationships and take people with you.”

In some instances, the companies themselves are to blame for a lack a strategic vision within their IT management. While colleagues in finance or marketing are often encouraged to expand their horizons by spending time at business school, Grubb at Robert Half argues that companies often fail to offer CIOs the chance to foster strategic thinking: “Clearly, the capability is there but many are not given the right opportunity to develop,” he says.

With IT now seen as a central business function with the ability to drive organizations forward, it’s up to CIOs to be proactive in developing relationships with their C-suite peers. IT leaders must ensure they position themselves front and center in the business, along with the technology that will be transforming their brands.
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