Managing technology in business was never simple. You can go back ten, twenty, even thirty years and find articles about how senior IT roles have struggled to deliver new systems and services whilst keeping existing capabilities running, fending off security challenges, or coping with the always-disgruntled user base. Some things never change.
So, when we look at how the CIO's role is changing, it's not like it is starting from any fixed position, a time when decision making was easier or things 'just worked' - they never 'just worked' ! Decades ago, technology started fragmenting, becoming more distributed as Moore's law enabled computers to become smaller - mainframes begat mini-computers, which then were overtaken by client-server architectures and then by highly virtualised infrastructures.
The trend continues. For example, 'consumerisation' is the tag given to the phenomenon of powerful computers becoming small enough to fit into our pockets and cheap enough for anyone to own. It isn't a particular surprise; indeed, we could all see it coming. We can see where it is going as well, as sensors and processors enable an increasing range of devices to connect - creating the so-called 'Internet of Things'.
While the fundamental backdrop of change remains the same, technology is becoming more a part of every business and, therefore, more crucial to business strategy. The CIO's role is becoming more significant as a result. Each new wave of IT - be it mobile, big data, cloud computing or whatever - comes with business benefits, but equally creates a series of challenges which can have a significant negative impact on the business if not planned carefully.
This does put the onus on the organisation to ensure the CIO can be proactive rather than reactive. Technology change isn't something you want to happen to your organisation, leaving you constantly trying to catch up. And neither should the CIO feel on the back foot, adopting coping strategies rather than leading the organisation towards a vision of what is possible. Should the CIO have a role on the board, as has so often been suggested across the years? Maybe - but only if the organisation has a shared vision concerning what this might mean to the business.
Of course CIOs have to earn their stripes, showing that they can successfully manage a stable technology environment even against a maelstrom of change. And not all businesses will want to be technology leaders, preferring to focus on traditional models, in which technology is merely a necessary cost to be minimised.
But for organisations wanting to use technology to drive new business, the most important thing is to make a proactive decision to involve the CIO directly in business strategy. We can see examples of CIOs involved at board level that graduate to COO positions - not least our own COO, Stephen Gillett or indeed, Ken Harvey at HSBC (now retired).
It is better to adopt a proactive approach than playing lip service to technology, or worse, simply expecting IT to deliver the goods without any advance investment. With technology becoming ever more strategic, organisations that think it will all 'just work' may well find themselves slipping behind their competition, even as the CIO battles to keep the lights on.