CIOs are board level influencers

Having the ability to influence the board could be more useful than being a board member for CIOs and CTOs

"Because IT is now central to competitive strategies, product strategies, and all parts of the value stream, it must support change at the speed of business," says former CIO and author Mark Schwart in his book A Seat at the Table.  In his book Schwartz is grappling with the concept of the CIO and CTO as a member of the board in the age of Agile teams and iterative product cycles. Whatever the development methodology of an organisation, as Schwartz identifies, IT is part an parcel of all elements of the organisation, its products and routes to market, so you would expect that the debate of whether the CIO should be on the board to have been consigned to history. That though is not the case, the debate rages on, but should it? Is there a problem with technology being at the board? Or, is technology benefited from not being a permanent member of the executive table?

Earlier this year global recruitment firm Harvey Nash and professional services business KPMG found in their annual CIO survey that the number of CIOs on the board has fallen for the third year in a row. 58% of the CIOs surveyed around the world were on board, down from 65% in 2018 and 71% in 2017. Interestingly, the survey found that CIOs are "relaxed" about the trend.

"Many technology leaders are very relaxed about whether they sit on the board. What they care more about is having the appropriate access and influence, and a supportive CEO to help them see their vision through," the Harvey Nash report says.

"We're seeing more reporting lines to the Chief Executive and fewer reporting to the CFO," says Natalie Whittlese, Director of UK CIO Practice at Harvey Nash. "There has been a real shift in reporting to people who are growth driven and future-focused, rather than those who control costs. This is the case across various sectors."

For some CIOs and some organisations being on the board is the way the CIO can be influential. Darren Martin, CTO of global engineering firm Wood Group has a board level position and this has enabled him to challenge the business in its journey to remodel itself.

"I proposed that we step up our investment in research and development and really think about what we need to do," says Martin. His peer at mining firm Anglo American Rohan Davidson adds: "When you are trying to transform your business, that has to be led by the lines of business, so it is a mix of everybody agreeing the opportunity," he says of the complex dynamic in global businesses.

Richard Orme, CTO of Photobox a European gifts and retail business adds that his time on the board is about informing them. "In most cases it is not my decision to make, my job is to inform them of the best decision to make."

"I engage them to think of all developments as a minimum viable product (MVP) to see if their ideas work," Daniel Glyde, CTO at PureGym a fitness business in the UK says of helping the board think technologically.

Challenge of the board

Because a seat on the board has been an ambition for the CIO community the positives are possibly over emphasized, but any leadership role has more than its fair share of challenges.

"It's hugely valuable as you gain a much clearer view of pressures and opportunities across the organisation. However it also takes up a lot of your time and that is time that you do not then have for your team and your suppliers," says Ross Fullerton, CIO with the London Ambulance Service. Fullerton is not on the board of his capital city organisation, but does have regular and influential access to the board, which the CIO prefers.

"Boards are seeking leaders who can see trends, are commercially aware to understand the implications of these trends, pragmatic when assessing them, fleet-of-foot when taking action, credible and persuasive when outlining strategies to the Board," Whittlesey at Havey Nash adds. She says: "As technology is broadly not just the domain of the tech leader, CIOs can't be precious about their remit; they must be financially savvy too. Importantly, the CIO will be highly customer-focused. They'll make it their mission to understand the customer, whether internal, external. They'll also think laterally about market-trends that may not obviously appear relevant."

Not only is time on the board demanding but as ever with technology, CIOs report that being on the board is a constant exercise in managing expectations. 

"Often our business leaders expectations outpace what technology is actually available," says Davidson at Anglo American. "So to manage that is a is a real challenge, particularly if you are working across different geographies. Also, people have pet projects, so you have to  work out where the sweet spots are and manage those expectations."

Martin is the first CTO of Wood Group and "spent my early time on a plane establishing the right dialogue with the right people," he says of joining a board. Simon Lamkin, a CIO in the airlines industry agrees with Martin. "Building relationships is the most important thing, making sure that you have regular air time with peers.

"Just going to the board meeting and expecting them to understand your technology plans doesn't cut the mustard. You must have formal one-to-one meetings as well as the informal coffee and off the cuff conversations, that means you can learn a lot more," Lamkin advises.

The CIO is now the CEO of a consultancy helping a number of airline business technology leaders and reflects how when he was CIO at Brussels Airlines the removal of a coffee corner not only removed the all important caffeine, but also "dialogue". "There was something about the queue that stimulated discussions," Lamkin says.    

Fullerton at the London Ambulance Service adds: "There is a skills gap of what it requires to be on a board as the expectations are high." In the UK the current health secretary has called on every public sector health trust to have a CIO on the board. An easy statement to make and one many parts of the press seized on, but as CIO Fullerton states joining the board is only part of the puzzle.

Being on the board therefore depends on the organisation and possibly the vertical market. As firms and sectors face up to the challenges of technology they will at different times find they need or do not need a CIO or CTO on the board.  Politicians claim CIOs need to be on the board for their own publicity, but in truth, health is undergoing a significant transformation as a result of technology, from greater obesity caused by the lower activity technology creates, through to the data opportunities within health. Sectors such as mining, engineering, retail and leisure are at a juncture; as the CIOs have told IDG Connect, where technology will reshape their business operations so the CIO plays a crucial role in helping the business transform the way it operates and reaches its customers. In markets already reshaped by technology, for example the media, the CIO has in many cases moved to become the Chief Operations Officer (COO) and remains a key board member. 

Whether the CIO is on the board or not, there is now a clear understanding of the critical role technology plays.

"IT leaders must take responsibility not for delivery, but for outcomes, in the same sense that marketing and sales are not just responsible for delivering TV commercials and sales calls, but for delivering revenues," Schwartz says in his tome: "IT must drive outcomes in terms of revenue, cost reduction, sustained competitive advantage, employee happiness and innovation."