What IS a CIO? And why so misunderstood?

The role and responsibilities of a CIO (Chief Information Officer) or IT Director as it is more commonly referred to in the UK is one that is often both misunderstood and maligned. This is in contrast to a CFO (the person who looks after the purse strings), CEO (the person who is overall responsible for business success) or COO (the person for making sure the business outputs as efficiently as possible) which are widely known, understood and vital roles within a business.

So exactly why is a CIO’s role misunderstood?

Well I believe that (certainly in the case of smaller businesses), the role of a CIO is often confused with that of an “IT Manager” or the general “IT go-to-person” that seems to be keeping the bits and the bytes in order on behalf of the business. Therefore when trying to define the role of a CIO, it is important to understand firstly, what the CIO doesn’t (or shouldn’t) do:

  • Answer support calls
  • Deal with isolated IT incidents
  • Get hands on and fix things that are broken
  • Be solely concerned with maintaining the “IT status quo”
  • Be an “IT tinker-person”
  • Be an empire builder – this is a very easy thing to do in IT because of the complexity of the subject matter – it’s terrible for “better business” however


Now we’ve established what a CIO shouldn’t do, how about what they should do? Here goes:

  • Be fully attuned to the businesses goals and objectives
  • Be responsible to the board for the businesses IT strategy, overall IT direction and IT service delivery – the IT buck stops here
  • Be constantly looking to achieve value for the business through the harnessing of new and important technologies
  • Be commercially aware – businesses can’t exist without sales and a good CIO knows and understands that – 100% of the time
  • Be a first class communicator – sadly a skill lacking in most IT individuals these days. ‘Youtube’ any Steve Jobs keynote for a “how to” on effective communication.
  • Be fully aware of the legal aspects of IT contracts – the small print can always trip you up in IT contracts
  • Manage vendors – simply because they need managing
  • Manage the IT team – if a CIO has an IT team under them, that team is the single most effective and valuable tool they possess
  • Understand the true costs of everything – managing the IT pounds and pence is just as important as managing the bits and the bytes
  • Make money and save money for the business – a CIO should be the person that the business turns to for inspiration about how to achieve more with less, make things go faster, reduce operational costs and get to market easier!
  • Understand and manage risk – the state of technology today unfortunately means that things can go wrong far too easily. Be aware of the effect your IT decisions have from a risk perspective and be prepared for the what ifs.
  • Don’t assume anything – know as much as possible. Find out what you don’t.

Over time, I believe businesses will understand that a CIO is vital to the success of any business as let’s face it, there aren’t many businesses in existence today that don’t deal in bits and bytes to some degree. The key thing for businesses to get their heads around right now is: what are we missing out on by not having a “true” CIO working for us?