Q&A: The rise of the virtual CIO in SMBs

The role of chief information officer has become entrenched in large organisations, but smaller businesses often can't afford to employ one. This means that they miss out on the expertise a CIO can bring, but also lack representation of IT at board level.

In some cases businesses are getting around this by outsourcing the role to a 'virtual CIO' who may only be needed for one or two days a month, so they can also work across multiple organisations, and from different locations. We spoke to Dean Coleman, head of service delivery at service management specialist Sunrise Software to find out more about this trend.

How does the role of virtual CIO work?

It's being taken up by small and medium companies where they don't have the opportunity to appoint someone internally. They often have an IT manager and an operational team, but a virtual CIO allows them to have IT represented at board level, something they may not have the budget for full time. They're often charged on a daily rate or held on a retainer.

We're seeing this more and more and several of our customers have employed someone in this role. They get someone with expertise in technology but who is also boardroom savvy and aware of the strategic way forward for IT.

Are these people in a sort of consultant role working across several companies?

Yes, they hold a portfolio of customers and they're able to use their experience and knowledge of the industry to benefit a number of companies. It also means a more varied role for them as consultants.

Is this part of a more general outsourcing trend?

It's outsourcing that one particular function and it can actually lead to outsourcing of other services. What we've seen recently is that organisations that bring in a virtual CIO role are also getting them involved in the operational delivery of services. For example they may have issues around a service desk that’s been outsourced and they want to bring it back in house, or they might be looking to outsource functions.

It gives them the opportunity to work with multiple vendors and have the expertise to allow them to get good deals and to manage the surrounding risk and issues. It’s then the CIOs responsibility to manage those service contracts.

There are also now service providers who now have this service as part of their wider offering alongside project management, support services and so on. It helps enable service integration and management (SIAM) strategies.

So it allows business to afford a better level of expertise than they would otherwise be able to?

Yes, definitely because you can have someone in the organisation just one day a week or a couple of days a month just providing governance and high level overview. The amount of time may increase when they’re doing strategic planning or bringing in new suppliers for example.

It also ties in to the use of cloud services, often businesses struggle to implement these and need the additional expertise that a virtual CIO can provide to understand the different charging models and so on..

Does this have a knock on effect in other areas, do you end up virtualising other roles too?

It can do, we've seen a case where someone was brought in to look at the overall IT and technology side of the business because it had an under performing service desk. They've ultimately outsourced the operation and were able to deliver a more up to date, modern service.

Is this along term thing or people being brought in just for specific projects?

For the smaller organisation it can be a long term arrangement. They can manage their budgets by not having somebody full time on the board, but can have someone with expertise to fill the role without the overhead.

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