Why Doesn’t The Role Of The CIO Ever Solidify?


Howard Baldwin, Contributor

January 8, 2014

I have heard this plaint from both doctors and lawyers in private practice: “In graduate school, they taught us how to practice our specialty. They never taught us how to run a business.” Sound familiar, CIOs? When you were studying electrical engineering or programming or whatever technological specialty you chose, did any of your classes encompass running a business?

Does this strike you as strange? It does to me. More than any other C-level executive, if they want to be really, really good at their job, CIOs have to not only know about their bailiwick, but every other aspect of the business as well. (Don’t expect this concept to be reciprocated, by the way.)

CIOs are under increasing scrutiny because most business people realize that those who understand digital business capabilities can rule the world. As Forrester analyst Alastair Behenna noted in a CIO UK article last week, “There is more pressure than ever on the CIO to capitalize on the escalating digital opportunities for their business. Traditional, well-established business models are increasingly being toppled by more nimble and agile businesses created through digital innovation.”

This transition fuels the ongoing debate about CIOs’ role in the enterprise. Matt Graham-Hyde, CIO of data investment management firm Kantar, has written a book entitled The Essential CIO. In an interview last week with Tech Radar, antagonistically entitled Is the Role of CIO Still Essential To Business?, he said, “[t]here is a fundamental reinvention of information technology taking place being driven by [social, mobile, analytics and cloud]. The changes we are seeing … make me question the foundational principles of information technology in business, and the need to either find, or invent a new blueprint for the business of corporate IT.”

The evolving role of the CIO plays a big part in the results of CIO’s annual State of the CIO survey, which were released last week. They’re not promising. Kim Nash writes, “25 percent of the 722 CIOs we surveyed report that the IT group is perceived by colleagues as a true business peer – or even a game-changer – that can create and launch new products and open new markets.” That’s a sadly low percentage.

Nash continues, “Toiling far from that exalted place, we find the 48 percent of CIOs who acknowledge that their IT groups are viewed by fellow employees as a cost center or service provider. Life isn’t so grand there. Their top activities are improving IT operations, deploying new systems and controlling IT costs. Managing IT crises is also high on the list. That sounds like a CIO job description from 1995.”

These results are further bolstered by another survey, sponsored by managed services firm Logicalis, published in CIO Insight earlier this week: “More than 50% of CIOs say they spend 70% of their time on day-to-day management instead of strategic planning and initiatives.”

But there’s another side to this ongoing debate that really makes me empathize with CIOs. That’s the rate of change within technology itself. At one time, the technology CIOs needed to know cold encompassed databases, ERP applications, storage, and networks, among myriad others. Today, as Graham-Hyde notes

, there’s the charmingly abbreviated SMAC: social, mobile, analytics, and cloud.

IDC analysts call this “the third platform,” after mainframes and PCs. A Business Tech article entitled The Role of the CIO in 2014 last week quoted the research firm as saying that “by 2018, adoption of 3rd Platform IT technologies will redefine 90% of IT roles.”

As a technology journalist, I understand that all technological advancement, like biological evolution, is incremental – a smartphone is really just a mainframe writ small – but still, that’s a lot of technology to expect one person to grasp.

Hence, perceptions of the CIO role keeps changing because technology keeps changing. For 20 years, I’ve been saying we’re in the Model A phase of technology, and that level of nascence shows no signs of abating. Even though companies select CIOs because they’re comfortable with technology, a better method might be to select CIOs because they’re comfortable with uncertainty.

Email CIO Next Community Manager Howard Baldwin if you’re a CIO who wants to spout off in an opinion piece on a technology-related issue.

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