CIOs need to rethink their roles, MIT symposium panelists say

'You have to be the customer," says one panelist, urging CIOs to 'really appreciate what the other side needs'

By now, it's become a tired old tech industry bromide: CIOs need to be business-savvy.

But while that sentiment remains true, technology trends, generational shifts in the workforce and changing demands from end users are forcing CIOs to go further and fundamentally rethink their roles, according to members of a panel at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan CIO Symposium on Wednesday.

Rather than make broad decisions about a company's technology strategies and purchases, CIOs should act as "brokers," thinking of themselves as middlemen between users and the services they want or even create, said Michael Golz, senior vice president and CIO for SAP's Americas division.

Golz described SAP's internal "app gallery" which contains mobile applications developed by employees. SAP checks the applications' security, tracks and measures their adoption and makes some of the most popular ones part of the official company roster. An employee-built application for single sign-on was among those that made the cut, Golz said.

SAP's success shows that innovation is "coming from places in the company you would never think of," he said. "The role of IT there is, how do you play as that broker while still maintaining the integrity of your systems?"

The fact that some SAP employees are actually taking the initiative to build their own applications also speaks to the trend of "shadow IT," where end users or individual departments buy and deploy products without the involvement of technical staff.

This tends to be problematic, according to Keith Collins, CIO and CTO of SAS Institute. For example, departments that purchase a SaaS (software as a service) application for their specific needs may not consider important matters such as how it will be integrated with the company's other systems, he said.

As CIO at SAS, Collins' goal is to "attach the IT teams to the business in a way they've never been attached before" in order to keep them attuned to what users want and need. He's had success, albeit with perhaps an unexpected result: "The business units are now hiring away my best people."

But for budding CIOs, a stint actually working in a specific line of business can be hugely valuable, said Sanjay Mirchandani , executive vice president at EMC, who formerly served as CIO there.

"You have to be the customer," he said. "The people we are supporting are very technically savvy. The CIO should have done a [line of business] role to really appreciate what the other side needs."

As for their own staff, CIOs should seek to build out "a team of leaders" who have both technical skill and business acumen, according to Georgia Papathomas, vice president and CIO of J&J Pharmaceuticals.

Another panelist echoed the sentiment. "The typical IT analyst or technician goes in [to a business unit] and says, 'tell me your requirements," said Michael Loo, senior vice president of global IT at Avaya. "We need to get out of that. They have to have the courage to step up and contribute to the process." Some IT staff are simply "scared" and unsure how much leeway they have in this regard, he added.

Even as a CIO's role changes, their core responsibility of keeping the proverbial lights on remains intact, Golz said. Without that, "you can forget the innovation discussion," he said. "If the email's down, it doesn't even happen."

Chris Kanaracus covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Chris' email address is Chris_Kanaracus@idg.com

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Chris Kanaracus

IDG News Service
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