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Sex and the public sector CIO

Sex and the public sector CIO

Can there seriously be anything genuinely new left to write about the CIO role? Maybe not, but there is certainly plenty of confusion and questions.

I was walking down the street last week mulling over how the public sector CIO role is evolving and I passed a magazine stand. A few of the lifestyle mags featured on their covers the usual articles about sex and relationships, and I’m thinking “How can there still be new stuff left to write about sex? Surely after 500 years of the printed word we must have run out of new things to write about sex?” The trick to selling lifestyle magazines is to recycle and recombine wisdom about biological and relationship realities — without sounding like the reader’s mum or dad.

A similar dynamic is playing out in the public sector CIO arena … at least in terms of the relationship part of the analogy. Can there seriously be anything genuinely new left to write about the CIO role? Maybe not, but there is certainly plenty of confusion and questions.

The generation change-driver of these questions is the swings of centralisation and decentralisation in the managerial passions of governments. While public sector organisations remain highly decentralised in terms of their core output-driven modus operandi, centralisation enthusiasms are on the rise again.

Whole-of-government strategies, consolidation and standardisation of infrastructure, enterprise agreements, common systems and shared services are the new themes. Unbridled decentralisation is out, but total centralisation is obviously impossible, so it is time to sharpen up the skills of simultaneously managing elements of both. This is referred to as a federal IT organisation — where corporate IT groups providing enterprise-wide leadership and shared services coexist with semi-autonomous IT functions located across the enterprise.

Making federal IT organisations work is tricky because of the need to constantly balance the tensions created by contradictions and ambiguity. On the one hand, the strategy calls for more integration, standardisation, consolidation and horizontal efficiency across the enterprise.

On the other hand the prevailing structures and management mechanisms are geared to the vertical — towards differentiation, flexibility, responsiveness and effectiveness at the local level. Avoiding the all too frequent, and career limiting, “one hand clapping” scenario requires astute leadership and the creation of some subtle, enterprise-wide capabilities.

Gone are the days when a department or agency CIO had the luxury of simply focusing on meeting the needs of some units of the organisation, while other units — and more typically projects — operated with complete autonomy.

The reality now is that CEOs require their CIO to have a practical degree of strategic leadership and control over the way their whole enterprise uses and manages IT to achieve its mission. This is required both to enable the enterprise to operate effectively in an increasingly information-intensive world and to enable it to be a capable participant in broader whole-of-government and inter-jurisdictional initiatives.

Both the leadership and the control elements are critical for the usefulness of a CIO to the CEO. The CIO must be able to both chart a new direction as well as get, and keep, the organisation on course.

Here are the questions that CIOs are now expected to be able to answer for their enterprise:

  • Spending and investment: Where are we currently spending our money on IT and how should we focus and set priorities for our future investments in IT-enabled business improvement?

  • Risks and threats: What are the critical risks and threats with regard to our use and management of information and technology and what should we do about them?

  • Portfolio: What is our project portfolio? How do the projects relate to one another and how do we ensure that they meet business needs on time and on budget?

  • Integration/differentiation balance: What business proc-esses, systems and data should we manage on more of an enterprise-wide basis? What are the business benefits and how should we make them happen?

  • Innovation: How can we take greater advantage of opportunities for using technology to be more innovative and to improve the productivity of our operations?

CIOs need to work harder at developing the strategic leadership and control/influence capabilities necessary to partner with their fellow executives, and to answer these questions intelligently and with enterprise-wide reach.n

Dr Steve Hodgkinson leads Ovum’s ANZ public sector advisory services.

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