Breaking down I.T. traditions: C-suite executives must step-up from the back-office to drive business innovation

The digital transformation of business is rapidly changing the role of CTOs, CIOs and broader technology management. As I.T. executives embrace forward facing challenges, how will their key responsibilities evolve and what does the future look like?

In the conventional business world, C-suite executives working in Information Technology (I.T.) have been responsible for aspects of I.T. such as cyber security, privacy, and risk management. However, that function of delivering technology strategy has now merged with the need to drive business innovation. Robert Hillard, Managing Partner at Deloitte Consulting says, "Until recently, I.T. was a back office necessity and as long as it kept running and off the CEOs desk, the CIO was a success. Today, the plans for every product and service has to include technology and it is the responsibility of the CIO to have a serious voice at the executive table. "

Exclusive research from IDG Enterprise which looked at the 2017 State of the Chief Information Officer (CIO), found “CEOs are looking to CIOs to help drive corporate revenue growth (32%), upgrade I.T. security infrastructure (32%), and to simplify I.T. (31%).”

The CIO role in future will become crucial to company growth

Modern CIOs have to create business value and move towards a more strategic role according to Dr Atif Ahmad, Co-ordinator of the Master of Information Systems (Executive) online course at the University of Melbourne. Dr Ahmad states that CIOs today need to ask, “how can we leverage I.T. to improve business opportunities? How can we use data analytics to better understand the markets that we're targeting?”

Citing a hypothetical example Dr Ahmad expands, “if a traditional bank made the decision to go mobile, in that case the CIO might be called upon to determine what the risk is in terms of I.T., whether the I.T. infrastructure is mature enough to support mobile banking, and what the customer experience might be like.” He adds, “In that case, the I.T. function is not just a back-office support function, but it's an innovation function and that's when I.T. begins to move out of its traditional role into a much more strategic role – and that's where we see CIOs going.”

Historically and still predominantly today, Dr Ahmad explains that the vast majority of professionals that have the title CIO are “largely functioning as I.T. directors, or I.T. managers and their primary role in the organisation is to manage the functional aspects of storing, processing and distributing information to the organisation.” He adds, “For a very long time I.T. has been seen as a back-office function, which exists to support the business but is largely unseen at the highest level of the organisation amongst the other C-suite executives. But today CIOs are expected to provide more value than just infrastructure support.”

Bridging the CIO gap between traditional responsibilities and new priorities

The 2017 State of the CIO report outlines, “there is a growing commitment to strategic endeavours like driving business innovation (cited by 33% of CIOs this year compared to 26% in 2016) and identifying opportunities for competitive differentiation, at 21% in 2017 compared to 16% last year.”

Dr Ahmad summarises those findings by explaining that “business is going to expect CIOs to do much more than simply manage the upkeep of I.T.” He adds, “Data analytics is one of those key attributes that we're looking for nowadays. The CIO needs to understand what that capability is and what analytics can provide to the business and how the business can leverage analytics to improve their competitive advantage.”

In addition, Dr Ahmad describes the role of the CIO as encompassing change management, strategic leadership, outsourcing and contracting. He says CIOs would have to assess “the risk of outsourcing and how they transition to a model where they have outsourced a lot of those actions, to ensure that their core business is running in the most viable and feasible way possible.”

CIOs need a whole new set of capabilities

According to Dr Ahmad, “the vast majority of CIOs come from the I.T. function and they don't tend to have a MBA or a business degree” – which he states needs to change. He adds, “They're technologists – they understand technology very well – they’ve been doing the drudge work that's been keeping them in the back-office for a long time.”

Recently published statistics by four big management firms show this kind of drudge work has significantly reduced over the last five to 10 years, but in order to make the transition successful, new CIOs or aspiring CIOs “need a new set of skills that they're not getting from their I.T. degrees,” according to Dr Ahmad. He says CIOs need the skills to “take an I.T. problem and frame it as a business problem.” He adds, “It is crucial for CIOs to understand the language of leadership and strategic management.”

Master of Information Systems (Executive) prepares next generation of CIOs

Developed by the School of Computing and Information Systems, the online MIS-E course is the only one of its kind in the Asia Pacific region. Dr Ahmad explains that this degree “precisely targets aspiring CIOs that are looking to make the transition to those skills that are required.” He adds, “whether it's a subject on emerging technology, strategic change leadership or techno-preneurship and innovation, this course is very much framed from a business perspective.”

The main point of difference of this qualification is that “it’s pitched at an executive level”, says Dr Ahmad. He adds, “Students come in with at least five years of experience rather than one or two years of experience, as is the case with most masters level degrees in I.S.” Dr Ahmad describes the course as “engaging in a lot of reflective learning.” He says that means “students are encouraged – using case studies – to revisit or analyse their own experiences and to understand from reflection, with the help of industry leaders.”

Unlike most degrees, students that come into this course have a high-level of experience working in the I.T. industry. Dr Ahmad says for this very reason, the course is designed to get students to “pace them through their own experiences in a guided way, to leverage their own experiences.” He adds, “That's really what executive learning is fundamentally about.”

The online learning aspect of the MIS-E course allows I.T. professionals already holding senior positions to seamlessly juggle their high-pressure, high-responsibility jobs, while trying to stay ahead of industry trends. Dr Ahmad explains that “one of the main design principles of this course assumes that students coming into this degree are going to have unpredictable schedules and are not going to be sitting in one place at one time.”

How the Master of Information Systems (Executive) embraces innovative thinking

Dr Ahmad states that one of the strengths of this course is its ability to teach students to utilise and leverage new technologies and to think innovatively. But, how do you teach highly skilled professionals to think innovatively? Dr Ahmad relates it back to his own subject ‘cybersecurity’ and explains, “people come into my subjects thinking information security is the same thing as I.T. security and that the primary security challenge is maintaining the availability of information technology services. We'll challenge their views on what security is and how it really works.” He adds, “We'll start by giving them a case study where the security problem is the leakage of Intellectual Property – a threat to the firm’s competitive advantage – once they begin to unwrap the nature of this problem and unravel all of the different threads, they begin to realise that information security is much broader than I.T. and requires a strategy that combines managerial, human and technological controls to protect business performance.”

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Serpil Senelmis