I’m often asked why I became a Virtual Chief Information Officer (VCIO), and the answer is simple – it allows companies to gain access to a service that they normally wouldn’t be able to afford, and there’s big value in that for them. Think about some key strategic roles that you’d normally have within a large enterprise - roles like CFO, CIO, CDO, COO. These are (hopefully) filled with highly skilled and knowledgeable people who can make a real difference to the organisation, but SMEs miss out on many of them simply because they’re just not big enough to justify these roles as full time, and they also don’t have the budget. For me looking specifically at the CIO role, there are a worryingly large amount of companies out there with someone in charge of IT (strategy, operations and the overall budget), and yet they typically know nothing to very little about managing IT.
For me that always begs the question: “How can you get the best out of your IT spend when the person in charge of it knows so very little about managing IT?”
What’s the Impact of Doing That?
Like any role in an organisation, if the person doing the job doesn’t know what they are doing it doesn’t get done well. In most businesses, IT is now essentially the engine room delivering core business services to generate revenues, so if this isn’t being done well, it can be disastrous. In the short term:
- Issues and opportunities are not properly identified
- Change is handled poorly
- Contracts, services and products are not selected according to detailed business requirements
- Risks are slowly introduced, but not identified, tracked and managed
- IT and the business don’t communicate to make good decisions
And then in the longer term:
- Issues build, become harder to fix, and impact productivity
- Opportunities are not implemented
- External services become expensive and don’t meet business needs
- Unforeseen risks begin to eventuate, at significant cost to the business
- IT operates in ‘break-fix’ mode, implementing Band-Aid solutions to issues, with no future vision
And this all just adds up to either cost or opportunity cost, and that’s usually when I get involved. Of course, I always wish companies had access to the right expertise sooner because it would undoubtedly avoid these problems, but the reality is that most companies need to feel some pain before they do something about it.
How Can a Virtual CIO Help?
A Virtual CIO provides a cost-effective solution to these problems for the simple fact that you get access to IT Managerial expertise, but only for only the hours you actually need. They’re part of your team with a vested interest in your success, and can call the hard shots with your IT budget and make it work better for you. Essentially a Virtual CIO is an experienced IT executive who works across multiple companies on a part-time basis, helping them to identify and implement IT efficiencies, and remove inefficiencies and risk. So in a nutshell, helping your company to save, and make more money by: looking at everything you do, or aren’t doing with IT, to provide the best business support possible. When I say ‘everything’, I structure IT into the 10 categories below. Considering most companies consider IT to be about just “Architecture” and “Service Delivery”, there are 8 other categories in IT where issues, opportunities and risk exist, and that allows a lot of scope for improvement!
If you’re working across all these areas with appropriate expertise and structure, what does it actually mean to the business?
- You get clarity around the current and future state
- You get to ensure that IT and the business work together towards the same business goals
- Operational impacts are minimised and handled appropriately when they do occur
- The business gets good service from your IT support, so is more productive with less downtime
- IT is well structured and runs efficiently
- The business has hardware, software, services, contracts and cloud services that are well selected and implemented to maximise staff productivity
- IT performance is monitored, and managed
- Change projects are assessed for feasibility, business requirements are well defined, and the change is handled appropriately to maximise success and staff uptake
- Web strategy supports the achievement of business goals
- Staff communications are cost-effective and maximise collaboration and information sharing.
How Does a Virtual CIO Work with Companies?
The starting point is always about understanding the business and where it’s going. Sometimes there’s a bit of structure around the longer term position (i.e. a corporate strategic plan), and once this is clear, steps are usually based around: Auditing: Working through a structured process to see how things are done now, and identifying the issues and opportunities. Planning: What needs to happen and when for the company to get where it wants to go. If planning is conducted as a stand-alone formal process, it should be able to identify, prioritise and schedule every strategic IT initiative for the business over a suitable timeframe. Change: Following a structured process that minimises risk, and maximises project success. The core of any IT change is that it must be feasible to do, and driven by suitably detailed business requirements so that the solution does exactly what the business needs it to do, at an expected cost, within an expected timeframe. “Change” is essentially the core deliverable for a Virtual CIO- they find what’s broken or can be made better, and make improvements. So expect a raft of change projects to be identified, and as above they should initially be assessed for feasibility, and always support the long-term strategy of the organisation. Of course not all companies need to make significant change, and for that reason there are 4 ways in which a Virtual CIO can be used:
Things to Look for in a Virtual CIO
As with any role, not all Virtual CIOs are created equal! Here’s a few thing you might want to consider before taking the plunge, because as with any IT change in a business, selection of a Virtual CIO must also be driven by clear requirements:
Overheads: You must make more money than you spend! There’s no doubt that sole operators will have the lowest overheads, and therefore often the most affordable pricing structure!
Experience: As above, if you’re going to a large consultancy, make sure you’re not getting a junior loaded with templates and processes, but no significant experience in IT Management and consulting. I always think it’s important to have a technical background because I like to understand implicitly what all the technical people are talking about.
Impartiality: All solutions should be driven from business requirements, and must be independent of any vendor or service provider.
Honesty, transparency, trustworthiness: It takes time to show my clients that they can utterly trust me to do the best thing by them every time. Honesty is easy to spot, because lies quickly create a mess and expect full transparency around what has been worked on, and how long it took.
Flexibility: If a Virtual CIO has part-time regular work (e.g. every Monday for 4 hours), you can expect that they will be pretty much unavailable during those times. But a lot of effort will be ad-hoc, so look for effective time management as they’ll need to be able to shuffle things around based on priority.
Team Fit: I’m a big fan of "team fit" and bringing a positive “can do” vibe with the service. I like doing business with people I have fun with, and I’d say that goes both ways. So look for someone who’s upbeat, motivated, and excited to bring benefits to your organisation!
Qualifications: I’ve never been one for qualifications in IT because it changes so fast, and I always preferred to get real world experience. That was until I got into Managerial and Consulting, where frameworks and methodologies are critical for analysis and process, and fantastically they don’t really change that much! A Virtual CIO primarily deals with change, so I think at a minimum they’d need a project management qualification like PRINCE2 or PMBOK. Beyond that, experience for me is still king, so look for capabilities around areas like process improvement, business analysis, governance, and risk management.
Results: Nothing is better than real world examples of performance, and easily contactable referees who are happy to sing the praises!