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Chief Information Officers - Making Sure Technology Works for People, An Expanded Role, Educational and Professional Requirements

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The effective use of technology is an essential success factor in almost every aspect of the endeavors of any organization. As a result, the role of the chief information officer (CIO) grew and expanded rapidly in the 1980s and 1990s. This office began as the domain of engineering-based, technology-focused individuals who were able to make sense of the alphabet-soup world of technology jargon and equipment. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, however, this role had changed. The responsibilities of the CIO now focus on not only responsibility for the technology and information systems in an organization, but also on how the technology can be used to make the organization more effective and successful. The CIO must have both a strategic understanding of the workings and goals of the organization and a strategic understanding of technology. To be able to apply the technology to the workings of a specific business, industry, educational institution, or government agency, the CIO is most often a senior executive and a key player in the executive decisions of the entire organization.

Making Sure Technology Works for People

Peter DeLisi, founder and president of Organizational Synergies, has told a story that illustrates what a CIO position is not . Along a certain bus route in a big city, passengers who had waited patiently for a bus to arrive watched in disbelief as the bus driver smiled, waved, and drove along without stopping to pick them up. The boss asked the bus driver why he was not picking up any passengers. The driver replied that he would not be able to stay on time if he had to stop to pick up passengers, so he was skipping that part of the job. An organization does not care that their computer systems work well if those systems do not help people within the organization to accomplish their assigned tasks. The job of the CIO is to make sure that the technology works—the buses run on time— and that the technology is useful to the people in the organization—people are able to “get where they want to go” and get their work done.

The CIO is, of course, first of all expected to run an efficient information technology opera-tion—the “buses” of the information technology system. The telephones, computers, networks, and all other technologies must be reliable and functional, and the staff who operates them must be customer-focused and helpful. This means that a CIO must know how to manage the technology procurement process and appropriately negotiate with suppliers. The CIO is responsible for buying the right technology for the organization at the best price. Often, he or she is the one who makes the decision about whether an organization should keep a certain technology function “in-house” (i.e., within the organization) or should buy that function from an outside company.

Frequently, one of the greatest areas of challenge for the CIO is determining and maintaining the technology infrastructure and architecture of an organization. Technology changes rapidly, and the network cables running through the walls of a building that were adequate for the computers of yesterday are often the wrong type for the new technology of today. The way the computers of an organization are networked together—the architecture of an information technology structure— often has to change as the company grows bigger, or is merged with another company that has a different system. At these times, the CIO is the individual responsible for keeping technology systems operational and integrated.

An Expanded Role

The CIO is responsible for a great deal more than just computer operations. For example, the CIO must be able to identify when a business or technology trend has the potential to radically redefine the way an organization does its work (i.e., improve its competitiveness and/or profitability). Then, the CIO must know how to assist the organization with that redefinition and how to obtain and implement the technology needed to make it all work.

More and more, business throughout the world is being done electronically, and the success of an organization often depends on “e-business” (or electronic commerce) opportunities and marketplaces. This means that the CIO is responsible for understanding the trends that are driving e-business at a particular time and how e-business is changing where an organization finds its customers.

Organizations are increasingly using information technology to share information and processes with business partners and customers so they can work together in new ways. The CIO is often assigned the key liaison role with these partners and customers and is responsible for determining both the processes and the technologies that must be designed and implemented to create an effective collaborative environment.

In the information age, any organization with the right information can effectively and aggressively compete with another organization. In the business world in particular, the information a company has—about its customers, price-cost relationships, distribution models, and processes—is one of the most valuable assets of the company. The vast majority of this information is obtained and maintained in an electronic format, on computers. Collecting, analyzing, and protecting this information is often a key responsibility of the CIO, who is also responsible for maintaining the privacy and security of organizational information.

Educational and Professional Requirements

Because the CIO is generally one of the executives at the highest level of an organization, the educational and professional requirements for the position depend on what is expected of others at that level in the organization. For example, in the field of higher education, the CIO is generally expected to have advanced degrees and experience teaching or working in comparable colleges or universities. In the world of business and industry, the CIO is generally expected to have a strong business background and education, which may include management experience not only in technology but also in other aspects of the company’s endeavors.

A “Big Picture” Job

The role of a CIO is one best suited for those who enjoy a “big picture” perspective. The CIO is in a better position than almost anyone else in an organization to understand the business from an enterprise-wide perspective. The CIO must appreciate and understand information technology, but he or she must be most enthusiastic about what the technology can do to help people and the organization accomplish their goals. Rather than behaving like the bus driver concerned about meeting a timetable, a good CIO must be interested in and working on the whole system—the buses, the routes, the timetables, picking up the passengers, knowing where they want to go, and getting them there on time. The position of chief information officer can be an exciting role for those who not only enjoy technology, but also understand its ability to transform the activities of an organization.

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