Multiple Roles Eyed for CIOs

By Allan Alter  |  Posted 10-17-2007

What is the essence of the CIO's role? It's an important question because the definition of the CIO is morphing and fracturing. Our surveys say fewer than half of CIOs report to CEOs while more report to CFOs. Does that mean the CIO role has been downgraded, or that Sarbanes-Oxley is changing the CFO's role? In our April 2007 CIO Role survey, threequarters of CIOs say helping set their company's strategy will be one of their most important responsibilities in the future, yet just one-third say their role is creating business strategy.

Are CIOs exaggerating their importance, or are they on target? MIT's Peter Weill and Jeanne Ross recently wrote in The Wall Street Journal that the focus on business processes is turning some CIOs into "strategic execution officers," while Michael Hammer calls the CIO the "chief process officer" (go.cioinsight. com/hammer). If they are right, is that a promotion or a retreat from the strategy creation role? I've even heard Gartner consultants debate whether CIOs must develop strategy or can succeed as strategy enablers.

Defining the CIO's role has never been simple. I've never seen a framework that neatly characterizes CIOs, like butterflies pinned and labeled in a lapidary case. Too many forces endlessly combine or contend, define and redefine what any CIO does. Strategy maker vs. strategy enabler is just one of many attempts to define CIOs I've come across over the years:

  • The Cyclical CIO:
    When a CEO believes the IT organization needs a shakeup, he or she hires a CIO who thrives on radical visions and changes. When the shakeup is over, out goes the visionary and in comes a chief information offier with a more operational bent. Repeat ad infinitum.
  • The Band-Aid CIO:
    Sometimes job No. 1 is fixing what your predecessor broke. Couldn't deliver projects on time? Get a project manager. IT out of alignment? Put in someone with more business experience.
  • The Rotational CIO:
    Some companies believe potential CEOs need to be well rounded. The CIO job can be just a stop on the Grand Tour.
  • The Multitasking CIO:
    CIOs frequently run other functions besides IT, such as strategy, administration and e-commerce. What a mish-mash. Try making a Myers Briggs-style categorization scheme out of this and you'll wind up with scores of possible roles. (I can see the nametags now: John Doe, CIO, ESMNCPGBO).

But though the CIO's role remains difficult to define, there is a constant: Whatever the particulars of the job description, the CIO creates possibilities. I can't think of a successful CIO who didn't increase the scope and scale of what IT could achieve for his or her organization: new kinds of processes, new kinds of strategies, even new ways to reduce costs.

The combination of technology and CIO traits such as ingenuity, deep operational knowledge, strong leadership and thorough understanding of the business environment —aka IT savvy—makes it possible for organizations to do what could not be done before. Sure, all executives, in or out of IT, need to understand how technology can help their business. But whether strategy creator or process enabler, no one but the CIO can lead that charge.