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Why cloud services are a crucial weapon in the CIO's battle for control

In recent years, the role of the chief information officer (CIO) has been questioned by many.

In 2013, Gartner stated that it would take around four years for the CIO to lose control of a large part of their technology budget to marketers and other business units, claiming that other departmental heads were better placed to research, identify and procure solutions that would meet their needs.

Forrester doesn’t entirely agree. They believe users and departments should be more involved in buying and recommending technology, but as the complexity and cost of IT projects increases, they’re convinced that the CIO must have the final say. This, of course, would mean the CIO will control the bulk of technology spending for many years to come.

So who is right, and what does the future hold for CIOs?

Many chief executive officers (CEO) agree with neither, and have instead hedged their bets by giving elements of control to all parties, creating a decision-making vacuum in the process. This ad-hoc approach has distanced the IT team from other departments and diminished its perceived importance to that of a support function, leaving systems siloed and data stores disconnected from the long-term strategic goals of the company.

A prime example is in the failure of so-called unified communications (UC) programs. In an effort to increase employee collaboration, innovation and productivity, enterprise department heads have independently adopted a variety of UC technologies. Over time, many of these have become obsolete, either because they cannot integrate with other business critical systems or, more simply, because they no longer meet the needs of today’s agile and mobile workforce.

The advent of the cloud and technologies like unified communications as a service (UCaaS) is enabling the CIO to undo some of this damage. However, the wreckage of past UC initiatives should serve as a warning to all businesses who believe that the CIO’s skills and experience have no bearing on their long-term future success. Too many have been denied the freedom and operational flexibility needed to realise the cloud’s commercial benefits. Indeed most examples of when the Board has paid attention to the cloud relate more to tactical and operational issues such as data backup, for example, or enabling the CEO to access email on their iPad. Hardly the kind of stuff that is going to propel the strategic direction of the business.

To harness the true power of today’s technologies, CEOs need to make it easier for CIOs to use the cloud for truly transformational purposes. More importantly, the whole Board needs to acknowledge that the CIO is the best person to identify and integrate these technologies in pursuit of a competitive edge. The alternative, to continue ‘as is’, will only extend the pain, leaving the enterprise just as hamstrung with data silos and disparate working practices as they have been in recent years.

IP-convergence is the next big challenge for the CIO

The next ‘big thing‘ for the CIO, really is big: To champion IP-convergence in order to transform their firm’s operations. This is both a challenge and a huge opportunity. Done properly, IP-convergence will bring all manner of previously isolated operational systems onto the network, enabling a never-before-seen level of centralised and coordinated control capable of driving efficiencies right across the business, from energy and natural resource consumption to how the firm’s physical spaces are occupied and organised. Put another way, by migrating more business systems and processes to IP the CIO can create a powerful tool for the collection of business intelligence data that can then be used strategically to drive the company forward. Knowledge is power and, in this regard, IP convergence can really deliver.

Cultural resistance will be the biggest hurdle. Moving to an IP-converged infrastructure will sound the death knell for a host of analogue systems and, as CIOs know only too well, Board directors are always reluctant to kiss past investments goodbye, favouring ‘mend and make do’ over ‘rip and replace’ almost every time.

But these challenges can be met only when the CIO has re-established their strategic value to the business. For this job, the cloud is their currency. By tapping into OPEX-based contracts for cloud applications and services, the CIO can demonstrate CAPEX savings to the Board, drive down the in-house cost of IT and redeploy internal resources. By putting the daily operational firefight in the hands of partners, the IT department can refocus on the kind of strategic initiatives that will earn the confidence of the Board. After all, helpdesk requests will be largely taken care of under the SLAs of their cloud service partners, as will software licensing issues, patch management and system updates. In short, the ‘X-as-a-Service’ model pumps oxygen into an IT department gasping for air.

All of this brings us back to unified communications. When enabled as a managed service in the cloud, the old ‘firefighting’ problems which have dogged UC in the past, of multiple device integration and inter-departmental systems interoperability, for example, can be consigned to the history books. All departments across the enterprise can connect, collaborate, communicate and share data in unison on software platforms managed by partners and hosted externally. In many cases, all the customer needs is a browser and an internet connection. The service provider will take care of the rest.

Don’t just blame the Board

The future is looking brighter for the CIO. The signs are positive for IP-convergence projects, and enterprise organisations are finally starting to reap the benefits of transformational cloud services, with UC as both a front runner and a proving ground for the model’s wider potential.

But the IT industry can’t lay blame for the CIO’s disintermediation solely at the feet of the Board; it too had a role to play, and must now do its bit to help the CIO bridge the gap. Vendors have been guilty of aggressively marketing proprietary systems, first to the CIO and then, in a bid to close a deal, to other internal department heads, without due consideration to interoperability and industry standardisation.

These actions have been due only in part to the economic climate; an aggressive deal and margin-driven IT sales culture has developed in recent decades which, thanks to the introduction of cloud and managed services models, is fast giving way to a more collaborative, long-term and partnership-led approach to doing business. This transition can’t happen quickly enough.

Only by adopting this stance, can the industry provide the support the CIO needs to assuage the Board’s fears relating to the cloud and make it a success. Then the CIO can move on to where their value is undeniable: in using technology to propel the entire enterprise forward through IP-convergence.

Indi Sall, technical director, NG Bailey’s IT Services division