Multiple Roles Eyed for CIOs

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
, 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

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,

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.

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