CIOs Struggle With Relevance of Role to Business

By Mike Vizard

At the 2012 Chief Information Officer Leadership Forum this week, CIOs from across the business spectrum debated not only the future role of the CIO, but whether the position would continue to exist. That’s not to say someone doesn’t need to manage IT, it’s just that IT is becoming so embedded as to be indistinguishable from the business process.

To make matters even more troubling for CIOs, in the wake of the consumerization of IT and increased reliance on external “Shadow IT” services, business units now regularly do end runs around the IT department, which is making it increasingly difficult for CIOs to stay relevant.

“The role of the CIO is going to vanish in the next few years,” says Yuvi Kochar, chief technology officer for the Washington Post Co. “We really need to change because no one is satisfied with IT; the business is frustrated.”

“The traditional role of the CIO has to go away,” concurs Joseph Spagnoletti, CIO for Campbell Soup Company. “We need to take a more consultative approach.”

However, while everyone agrees there is a chronic need for change, no one seems to agree on just what exact form that these changes should take.

CIOs have long been criticized for focusing too much on infrastructure rather than on information. Cases are regularly being made for the IT organization to become the steward of all information across the enterprise.

“The real goal should be to improve the use of information,” says Saad Ayub, CIO of Scholastic, Inc. “You need to understand the difference between demand management and demand creation. That’s why we look for people that have had experience working as a consultant to the business.”

 However, not every CIO thinks it’s that simple.

“As soon as the CIO becomes in charge of information, you lose,” says Campbell’s Spagnoletti. “You need to think like an investor in your company, which means focusing more on the business outcome.”

That means, says Spagnoletti, spending less time worrying about who controls the data and more time on helping users derive business value from it. “It’s about being the conductor, not the gatekeeper,” says Spagnoletti. “IT needs to be judged by the business outcome you get, not what you do. Only then are business executives going to treat you like a peer.” Unfortunately, because not enough IT people understand that requirement, too many IT people wind up developing a victim mentality, says Spagnoletti. Worse yet, he says, many IT organizations end up investing in technologies that, from a business perspective, never attain a real return on the initial investment.

In fact, as the CIO role continues to transform, IT leaders may find it easier to find a seat at the executive committee, provided they act like they belong there. That means not focusing on aligning IT to the business, but rather helping define the company’s vision and values.

“The trouble with the concept of aligning IT to the business is that it assumes IT is subservient to the business,” says Nick Colisto, CIO of Hovnanian Enterprises, a nationwide home builder and author of “The CIO Playbook.” According to Colisto, IT leaders need to create a plan that gains them a seat at the executive management table, not the least of which is building business cases that promote the value of IT to rest of the business. “Don’t look at business executives as customers, see them as equals,” says Colisto.

The goal, says Scholastic’s Ayub, is to reach a point where IT is being used to transform the company’s business model. In most instances, that means coming up with new products and services that drive revenue. “A lot of the time that means becoming part of the sales team to help explain how those products work,” says Ayub. “The challenge is that there’s no mechanism in place in most organizations to allow that kind of business innovation to occur.”

In the case of Rob Hilliard, CTO for Reader’s Digest, that means spending more time working outside the IT department. “I now spend most of my time working with the marketing department to advance the ideas we came up with in IT,” says Hilliard.

Ultimately, the successful CIOs of the future are going to need to create and define their own job descriptions. The only thing certainty is that as time goes on that role is becoming increasingly critical to the business, regardless of whether the job is still identified as the CIO’s or not.

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