Understanding the Role of the CIO

The Chief Information Officer or CIO is a title given to a company executive that is responsible for the management, implementation and usability of information and computer technologies. Over the years, the role of the CIO has increased in popularity and importance as technology continues to bring newer innovations.

While the role continues to evolve, the main task remains the same. For most organisations, the CIO not only fulfils the role of a business leader but is also responsible for planning and mapping out the IT strategies and policies of that organisation. Be it software or hardware, the CIO is also the one that makes the executive decision or convinces the board to make the right decisions in IT.

According to the 2020 State of the CIO report by IDG, 95% of CIOs say that their role is now expanding to include new responsibilities which include cybersecurity, data privacy or compliance and customer experience. Also, 89% of CIOs are now more involved in leading digital transformation initiatives compared to their business counterparts.

To understand more about how CIOs are handling their role today, DSA caught up with Professor Alex Siow, a professor and director of the Advanced Computing for Executives Centre at the National University of Singapore. Prof Alex is also considered Singapore’s first CIO when he took up the role during his employment at Singapore’s Housing and Development Board (HDB). With over three decades of experience, Prof Alex oversaw the transformation of technology in organisations even before the internet was able in Singapore.

It all began in 1989 when Prof Alex, a structural engineer, was requested to move to the IT department to run it. He was a professional engineer with no IT background but decided to make the move. However, he soon realised he could do a lot more than just be an IT head and after discussing with his CEO, he took upon the title of CIO.

“At that time, the CIO title was not used in Singapore. It was available in the US in some companies. I told my CEO that as a CIO I will not just do a support role but will use IT to help improve HDB’s business, as HDB deals a lot with the people of Singapore. This was in the beginning of 1991. I had to do a lot of things to make a difference, otherwise, I would just be a head of computer services with a CIO title”, said Prof Alex.
Since then, technology has evolved and improved the way most of us work. However, Prof Alex believes that all new technology will require some time to be adapted by businesses. For example, technology like blockchain has not reached its full potential yet. The same goes for cloud technology when it was first made available, as well as cybersecurity issues.

“When I first started as a CIO, there were also cybersecurity concerns. But hackers back then were not so sophisticated. I was one of the first to introduce penetration testing within my organisation and have multiple layers of cyber defence. However, all these technologies will not be useful if we do not take care of the weakest link in the chain. Your cybersecurity is only as strong as your weakest link”, explained Prof Alex.

As humans are considered the weakest links, Prof Alex pointed out that it is very important to ensure enough cybersecurity training and awareness is provided. Hackers always target the weakest link. The solution, according to Prof Alex, is to ensure everyone is aware of their part in cybersecurity no matter what their role is in the organisation. He added that organisations also need to have a good cybersecurity reporting system to address any threats or potential threats.
When asked about the role of the CIO of the future, Prof Alex highlighted that it’s important that the CIO realises that he is serving the business and using technology for the business. Hence, understanding the vision and mission of the business is of paramount importance. Otherwise, they may end up doing things that are not important.

“The CIO also needs to take care of the people. This includes making sure the people’s skills are relevant to the mission of the company. If they are not skilled, they have to be upskilled and made ready for emerging new technologies. Trying to save funds by outsourcing instead of upskilling staff is a short-term gain but long-term pain. In the end, you will keep on relying on external vendors. By all means, if there is short of skills, use external vendors. But as a stop-gap measure, there should be knowledge transfer so that our people will ultimately be competent enough to handle the needs of the organisation”, said Prof Alex.

Lastly, Prof Alex added that being a CIO also means learning from the community and continued education. This includes learning from peers and mistakes so that it can be avoided. The CIO is also the Chief Innovation Officer so encouraging innovation has to be in the mind of the CIO as well.

In the video below, Prof Alex explains more about the role of the CIO and how he used technology during his time as CIO of HDB.

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