Chris Gabriel looks at the rise of a new kind of CIO, and identifies the new equation behind successful business aligned technology strategies.
I was on holiday last week, and on my return I had the unenviable task of trawling through my inbox. After pounding the delete button for 20 minutes solid, one email caught my eye.
It was from whatis.com and carried the headline; Word of the Day: fractional CIO.
At first I thought it was the fractious CIO, and assumed it was a news story about a technology leader who had simply had enough of being told he or she had to do ‘more with less’ and brought down their own data centre by running around pressing all the red emergency buttons. Wouldn’t you get fractious if most commentators now explained your primary purpose as excess electronic expunging?
But, my eyes still blurred from the Mediterranean sun, I had misread the headline. So, intrigued by the fractional CIO I couldn’t help but click and read more. The email simply gave a definition:
‘A fractional Chief Information Officer (fractional CIO) is a high-level consultant who specializes in aligning information technology (IT) with business goals. Quite simply, a fractional CIO works for a fraction of the time, at a fraction of the cost it would take to hire a full-time executive to fill the post. This can be a cost-effective solution for businesses that are in need of expert advice, but cannot afford the salary and benefits it would take to hire another C-level executive.’
Now, the part time or virtual CIO isn’t a new concept. The university sector in the United Kingdom has long leveraged the time of specialist CIOs to temporarily take charge of strategy, or supplement the skills of the incumbent IT leader.
But it wasn’t the concept that intrigued me; it was the term “fractional”. And, it wasn’t in relation to maths, it was the term’s more common use in relation to chemistry that got me thinking.
Fractional distillation is the chemical process of separating one substance into its component parts. A good example of this is crude oil, which is fractionated into lubricating oil, fuel oil, diesel oil, kerosene and, most prized of all by car drivers around the world, gasoline.
The art of finding different valuable outcomes from the whole is the fundamental principle of fractionation, and therefore my contention is that every CIO is going to have to become a fractional CIO, whether they work part time or not.
Why? Because the value of IT is ever more in the eye of the beholder, and delivering one value outcome to one user audience will leave some contented and some questioning what value IT is bringing to them and their business unit.
Simply put, there isn’t one IT service. There are tens, hundreds, and as we move to a world where every user experience counts, possibly thousands of them. Every user will be looking at the IT service and wondering which element is being distilled just for them. Every business unit leader will be looking at how much they invest in IT and expecting a golden nugget to be produced that makes their business unit the most efficient or profitable in the business.
And to achieve contentment for all, not just a part of their user base, CIOs will have to contend with another fraction.
They will have to work out which fraction of the business’ IT systems must be owned and operated by their own teams, and which parts can be operated or provisioned by somebody else – managed services and cloud services have to become a part of the equation of user satisfaction also. The CIO has to work out which bits of IT they have to put their hands around and which pieces can be delivered by a trusted partner.
Of course, the full time or fractional CIO will be responsible in the main for the entire IT service. Just because they have figured out the right percentage of services to keep in house, doesn’t mean they won’t be held accountable for the pieces they chose to let somebody else operate. They will have to become experts in fractional IT services management – distilling the elements but managing them as a whole.
So the equation underpinning the alignment between business and technology really isn’t about whether a CIO works full or part time. It is about how they manage the demand for more business value from IT investments – distilling out the many component services and focusing investment and resources (and adopting the right consumption models) accordingly.
The CIO alchemist could already be amongst us, or perhaps Harry Potter needs to think about life and work after Hogwarts.