Why CIOs are looking towards a different – not disappearing – role

Eddie Ginja is head of public sector at KCOM.

At Cloud Expo Europe this year, the Ministry of Justice’s chief digital and information officer (CDIO) Tom Read took a refreshingly candid view of IT. “Nobody really cares about infrastructure — it’s the backbone,” he said, adding that “as much as possible, we need to stop talking about it and stop putting all our efforts into backend infrastructure.”

It’s the view of a technologist who just wants things to work. His central argument was around why CIOs should just let others take care of any infrastructure through the cloud. As he said, “AWS is probably better at hosting than you. They have massive capacity, scalability, their business is based on being secure… so just let them do it.”

Alongside these comments, Read also made a somewhat bold statement that CIOs need to come to terms with the idea that their job role might not exist in five years’ time. Now, while that makes a great headline, I don’t believe the demise of the CIO is remotely possible. I couldn’t agree more with Read’s statement about letting the likes of AWS “get on with it” but migrating to the cloud isn’t the end of a CIO’s job.

Changing an organisation’s approach to expenditure and creating scalable hosting and architecture in the public cloud doesn’t negate the need for financial oversight and technical know-how to manage the relationship with your vendor (be it AWS, Azure, Google or whoever).

Of course, migrating to the cloud has huge cost and flexibility benefits for your business, and I think we can all agree that IT experts have extensively promoted those features. But if you migrate and fail to review that service as new functionality comes out, or your business hosting needs change, then you could be paying far too much for your cloud estate. Optimising that investment is an important, ongoing consideration.

And don’t overlook connectivity. While the IoT, analytics and cloud native architecture are getting a lot of attention, let’s not forget that unless your organisation connects to the internet in the most secure, robust and efficient way possible, your IT strategy flies out of the window. Without the right amount of bandwidth, you can’t create, manipulate and analyse huge amounts of new data gleaned from sensors and devices that have previously never required access to the internet.

The commercial pitfalls of inferior security and connectivity downtime are too critical to ignore. Infrastructure and its ongoing management will always be important, but the skills required to maximise the CIO’s investment in it have to change.

The evolving role of the CIO

IT departments require completely different skillsets now than they did 10 years ago, and, as such, the role of the CIO has evolved considerably as new technologies arrive and businesses embrace digitisation. The same will be true again in less than 10 years’ time.

While managing hardware and helpdesks are often outsourced because of their ‘hygiene’ operational functionality, the IT expertise in house focuses on planning and facilitating how technology can bring commercial benefits to the bottom line. Increasingly, the role of the CIO is to gather together disparate systems and siloes and ensure they work together seamlessly to deliver consistent, user-prioritised digital services. After all, digital technology only works if its users, including all the organisation’s employees, can measurably benefit. Systems and software that enable the contact centre, HR, finance, sales and marketing functions must therefore be intrinsically integrated.

Of course, strategic partnerships can support that innovation and bring ease and efficiency benefits to both customers and employees, but they must be driven by a CIO with vision.

Why the public sector especially needs strong CIOs

Reflecting on the views of Tom Read, I would argue that it’s the public sector that is especially in need of CIOs right now because infrastructure requires management rather than tactical work.

I work with customers in the public sector who are racing to take advantage of technological advancements. What I notice most is that the role has become far more creative in nature. Both central government and local councils are leading the charge in creating new services from scratch in the cloud. Digitising your services isn’t enough to meet the expectations of an increasingly tech-savvy citizen. Neither is simply making all your documentation available online.

Technology can help local councils maximise expenditure in physical services that haven’t been promoted or made accessible via online channels. In Wigan, for example, the council outlined a number of pledges where it requested support from the public regarding efficient dealings with the council.  In return, it has put in place an easily-accessible knowledge base platform including products and services outside of the council’s control which gives residents better access to more appropriate support for their individual needs.

For example, demand for council-led day care centres has decreased because parents now know about, and have access to, community groups, charities and support groups where they receive more individually-tailored support.  Wigan’s citizens get more appropriate choices for their needs and the council reduces its annual cost for day care. In the future we will see technology managing knowledge in line with people’s individual needs and choices to enable similar strategies.

It’s exciting and innovative stuff, not to mention great fun when we get to help public sector organisations realise their digital ambitions for local residents and businesses. But our work doesn’t remove the need for CIOs to guarantee the most efficient and secure cloud, customer service and connectivity environments. Yes, today’s technology reduces the need for that resource dramatically, but that enables modern CIOs to focus on the strategic development of new digital services, employee efficiency and customer experience.

It may be a new take on the traditional role of the CIO, but it’s a huge role nonetheless. Today, public sector CIOs are expected to create a truly digitally-enabled organisation with first-class citizen services. Failure to embrace this change and learn the necessary skills to apportion time differently has undoubtedly led to delays in public sector innovations. Five years have passed since the government announced its “cloud-first” policy, and yet many councils still lack a formal cloud policy.

Don’t worry public sector CIOs — your jobs are safe as long as your minds are open to change.


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