CIO: The Accidental Strategist

Mike Gabbei says he’s a tactical CIO, and he’s okay with that. As the CIO at Celadon Group, a $500 million trucking company based in Indianapolis, Gabbei knows his focus on operational efficiency is considered passé at a time when business-tech gurus insist that CIOs need to be more strategic in outlook.

“I read the articles,” he says. “But to be honest, I’m not the type that’s going out and inventing new markets.”

That doesn’t mean Gabbei isn’t pulling his weight. A 10-year veteran at Celadon, he reports to CEO Steve Russell and participates in the executive team’s weekly meetings. Yet he sees his primary value to the company coming from his emphasis on the more traditional parts of the CIO job, and those are the areas on which he spends his time and energy.

“I’m constantly looking at the marketplace from a technology perspective, to see how we can drive efficiencies into our business,” he says.

Judging by the research, Gabbei has plenty of company. Consultants, authors and the media–including CIO Insight–hammer on the theme of strategic focus, and most companies claim information technology is strategic to their business.

Despite that, just one-third of IT executives say they play a significant role in the strategic planning process at their companies, according to research by Diamond Management & Technology Consultants. Its study says that only about one-quarter of participating CIOs spend up to 50 percent of their time on strategic issues, with barely one in 10 spending more than half their time on strategy.

New research from CIO Insight provides somewhat different statistics but a similar message: A sizable percentage of CIOs identify themselves as more tactical than strategic in their day-to-day affairs. 

The data show that fewer than half of responding CIOs say they “create or co-create business strategy.” Sixty percent say they “contribute” to their company’s strategy, with the same number stating that they focus heavily on ensuring the reliability of IT infrastructure and environment. More than one-third say their jobs include significant commitments to less-glamorous jobs such as process improvement and ensuring data quality and access.

What accounts for the gap between expectation and reality? Several factors come into play. For one thing, tactical and operational jobs still matter–a lot–and getting them right is a good way to keep the boss and the shareholders happy. At smaller companies with relatively limited IT resources, these jobs often soak up a lot of a CIO’s time.

It’s also true that the nature of the CIO function can shift over time within the same company, and there are moments when a process-oriented executive is of particular value, such as when an acquired firm and its technology assets must be integrated with existing operations. So the tactical focus works for some companies and some technology executives, at least some of the time.

But there is more to the equation. A big part of the story lies in definitions: how observers define the strategic and tactical roles and the ways in which CIOs themselves use the terms.

“We’re all tactical to some extent,” says Merv Tarde, CIO of Interstate Batteries, the largest distributor of automotive replacement batteries in the United States, with estimated 2006 revenues of $1 billion. Yet Tarde, like many CIOs who spend considerable time on traditional jobs, also takes on functions that most people would define as strategic. “We come up with initiatives that are worthwhile taking on as an enterprise, and the executive team listens to us,” he says. As an example, Tarde cites an e-commerce unit that IT suggested and tested, and which subsequently grew into a unique line of business.

Alex Cullen, an analyst at the IT advisory firm Forrester, has researched the CIO role and admits that labels can be misleading. “We paint extremes, because we want people to think about it,” he says.

Chris Curran, chief technology officer at Diamond, says people can get carried away with the labeling game. “There are people who live in the operating mode and are great operating CIOs, and they are cool with that,” he says. Still, he adds, “I don’t know anyone who is happy thinking of him- or herself as completely nonstrategic. Everyone wants to be valued.”

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