The CIO's role in IT business alignment

The executive who used to just take charge of information processing now plays a part that intertwines with that of the organisation's business success.

Every information technology (IT) project typically follows a systems development life cycle or SDLC. The SDLC is a conceptual model used in project management and involves multiple stages from the initial feasibility study through to development and implementation to the maintenance of the application system. Traditional timeframes for a full cycle range from less than six months to more than two years although the latter timeframes are normally broken down into discrete phases of between six to 12 months. However, in today's fast changing environment, shorter timeframes are the norm as organisations seek to become more responsive towards their stakeholders. From a governance perspective, as a norm, projects are usually managed by a project manager or in the case of larger and more complex projects, a project director. The role of the CIOs typically resides at the level above the project manager/director as the project co-sponsor together with the line of business head for whom the application system is being developed. Only in very large and strategic projects does the CEO come in as the project sponsor with the CIO taking on a more direct role in the project to update the CEO on the project's progress and ensuring its success.

Oversight role

From the above we can see that the CIO's role in project implementations generally revolves around ensuring success through an oversight role. However, with the increasing importance of IT-to-business alignment, this role has been growing to include raising the awareness of the impact on business of technology usage within the organisation while at the same time educating line of businesses on the need to understand technology to use it meaningfully.

The measure of what constitutes the success of project implementations has also evolved to the point where IT projects are often benchmarked against business successes. This has further transformed the role of the CIO from that of information custodian within the organisation to one with a much greater focus on business. However, challenges remain despite many years having passed in this transformation process and this is no different for CIOs within the public sector.

A recent survey of CIOs and Line-Of-Business (LOB) managers within the Asia Pacific (excluding Japan) public sector illustrates one of these challenges. As Figure 1 and Figure 2 show, there are significant differences between CIOs and LOB managers regarding their perception of the top business initiatives leading the organisation's agenda; not surprisingly, CIOs focus more on back-end improvements (IT organisational responsiveness and efficiency), and LOB managers, on front-end enhancements (customer services).

Nonetheless, customer service enhancement and service innovation/development rank highly for both groups, especially LOB managers. Both groups also show some recognition of the importance of performance improvement, suggesting that priorities are reasonably well aligned with the growing demands of business.

Sharper focus

The impact of the current economic situation has brought this difference into sharper focus and one of Government Insights' predictions for the coming year is that projects within the public sector will increasingly be tied to the line of business portfolio and mapped to holistic solutions as opposed to discrete IT programme goals.

In the uncertain economic and political climate, coupled with rapid technological change, agility-the ability to adapt quickly to changing business conditions and take advantage of dynamically emerging opportunities-has become a mantra in both the business domain and public sector. Like corporate organisations, the public sector needs to engage current and new customers, and build a positive reputation and customer/citizen loyalty.

However, unlike corporate organisations, the public sector is accountable to citizens rather than shareholders; typically seeks to lower service costs rather than increase profitability; often targets the most disadvantaged rather than most valuable customers; and has the levers to impose obligations and penalties.

This has further increased the pressure on the public sector CIO to ensure that there is IT to business alignment and that project implementations achieve both their technology and business objectives.

The clearest example of public sectors seeking to mainstream green considerations across their core business processes is in the proliferation of eco-city developments across the Asia Pacific, such as in Tianjin, China, and Bangalore, India. Such initiatives deploy IT holistically towards intelligent urbanisation integrating IT products and services within public safety, transportation, clean energy, healthcare, and education. In this way, CIOs take on a far more strategic role to drive the application of technology towards the business mission of sustainable development, while blurring CIO-LOB lines of responsibilities through joint accountability for such projects.

Raphael Phang is director at Government Insights, an IDC company.