The Role of the CIO: Why You Deserve to Be Demoted

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that when a group of people (say, CIOs for example) are constantly talking about their role and the future of their role, it’s likely they are in trouble–whether they want to admit it or not. Judging from what’s been appearing online and in print over the past 24 months, it seems like we have a really big problem brewing.

Don’t believe me? Try it yourself. Do a search on “the role of the CIO.” Look at the results for the last 90 days and see what comes up. Article after interview after white paper all talking about the big and important changes afoot for CIOs.

To be sure, every executive examines their role and scope of responsibilities from time to time — that’s natural. But if you look at the volume of material being written about and discussed on the role of the CIO, it seems that CIOs are obsessed with this issue. That’s especially clear if you do a similar search on “the role of the CFO,” or even “the role of the CEO.”

The folly of conventional wisdom

Now comes the interesting or, some might say, the exasperating part. When you read these articles, white papers and interviews, there isn’t really a meaningful exchange of ideas around specific issues. They all just seem to say almost exactly the same boring and unbearably obvious thing. It goes something like this: (Cue background violin music)

The world is changing. Business is going faster than ever before. You can’t just be a technologist. You have to be a real business partner. You have to drive revenue. And when you do, everything will be great.

Recently, it’s gotten even worse. Here is a direct quote from the closing lines of the just-published CA white paper entitled: “The Role of the CIO–Becoming the Boss.”(Crescendo music please.)

"… the penny is dropping in boardrooms around the world; cloud computing is driving change and CIOs are well placed to capitalise [sic] on market conditions and offer their expertise to the organization [sic] at a leadership level…CIOs must maximise [sic] their muscle as the technology visionary within their business and help the boardroom to emerge stronger in the future.”

“Maximise their muscle?” What sort of fantasyland do these people live in? “The penny is dropping?” Gimme a break. More like a bowling ball.

Beyond the sheer silliness of lines like these, this stuff drives me nuts for several reasons:

  • It’s beyond simplistic and obvious. Of course the world is changing. Of course you have to be close to the business. Of course you have to seek out revenue-enhancing solutions. That’s been standard operating procedure for CIOs for years already.

  • The flowery, esoteric, you’ll-be-the-CEO-someday ideas are nothing more than feel-good journalism. It promotes a completely unrealistic expectation for 95 percent of CIOs. Heck, research shows that less than 40 percent of CIOs even report to the CEO today.

  • The biggest problem I have with this kind of material is that it fails to address what’s really going on. These articles and white papers talk about how things ought to be and they describe the roles they believe CIOs would like to play. They don’t address head-on the real challenges of the CIO today. In place of facing up to the very immediate and real threats to the CIO, they jump to future visioning. As if to say, when you act like this, everything will be fine.

So before I say a single word about the role of the CIO, I want to take a moment and put out there what’s really going on, what’s really driving so much of the role searching (and soul searching) for CIOs today. Unless we clearly see the true nature of the challenges, no solution will work. It will simply be disconnected from reality.

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