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

By Marc J. Schiller

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.

Three Big Reasons for Demoting the CIO

Meet the big three

For lack of a better term, and for dramatic effect, I'll call the very real and current challenges the three big reasons for demoting the CIO. They are:

  1. Today's business managers are tech-savvy. They have grown up with technology, they understand it and they want to make their own technology decisions. They do not need a CIO slowing things down and making it more complicated. And don't bother offering yourself as a "consultant" to the business. If they want a consultant, they will hire one with the specific expertise they need. After all, such consultants are a dime a dozen.

  2. IT is ubiquitous and no longer offers a strategic advantage. It has become a commodity that can be purchased on-demand and in the cloud. (Notice your own words being turned on you.

  3. What can't be bought in the cloud can be bought from an outsourced vendor. From desktop support to payroll processing and on to nearly every business process, there are plenty of competent outsourcers out there to get the job done.

Given these three obvious realities, what are really the roles and the value-add of the IT group generally, and the CIO specifically?

Now that, my friends, is a serious challenge. And that is what is going through the minds of business managers all over the world. It may not be said quite so overtly, but it's there. Not because they don't understand and value technology, but precisely because they do. And CIOs are feeling it. So unless we can provide an answer to these three really tough questions, as it relates to the role of the CIO, we'll just be kidding ourselves about what the future holds for IT professionals and CIOs alike.

A real dialogue to address the challenges

In place of attempting to give you a 30-second version on the "new" role of the CIO, I'd like to open a dialogue. I'd like to present just one idea that I believe will be helpful to IT leaders in both forming a sense of their role today and into the future. Most importantly, I'll present and test that one idea against the big three reasons to demote the CIO to see how it stands up. You get to be the judge.

Returning to a very basic premise

It seems to me that many business professionals, tech journalists, and even many CIOs have their acronyms mixed up. Reading and listening to their criticisms of CIOs, it seems they think that CIO stands for chief implementation officer. Of course CIOs oversee large-scale tech implementations, but that's not what gets a CxO title. The role is meant to be chief information officer.

You see, the real importance of this role comes from the focus on information. It's not a trivial point. In fact, when you think of the role of the CIO as being first and foremost about managing, securing, enhancing, and leveraging the organization's information assets, the three big arguments for demotion are easily countered. Here's how:

  1. Today's Business Managers are Tech-Savvy: That's both a blessing and a curse. It's a blessing because a lot of the silly, handholding activities required of IT in the past can be ditched. It's a blessing because it makes technology-based discussions easier. But it's also a curse, because business managers are still business managers, and so they should be. They are impatient and want to get things done quickly. They don't have the time or the inclination to work through all of the nitty-gritty details that are required to ensure that the systems they are putting in place do, in fact, collect and integrate data with other corporate resources. They don't have the time or the expertise to evaluate the information integration and interface requirements a particular system may create. And they certainly don't want to be on the hook for all of the data security and regulatory compliance issues that are growing by the day. The beauty is, when you really lay out the information angle for a tech-savvy colleague, they usually get it. What's more, this understanding will often lead to support and compliance around issues like data governance and standards. When that happens, it's magic. Because now you share a common destiny regarding the integrity of, and the access to, your organization's most important asset: its information.

  2. IT No Longer Offers Strategic Advantage: Completely true. And that's the most important reason to have a CIO. To make sure that IT investments are made with this fact clearly in mind. The CIO needs to be there to remind everyone that the technology, per se, offers no operating advantage. To merit IT investment dollars, an application must be implemented in such a way as to confer unique value. With all the hype about ERP, CRM, the Cloud, whatever, it's easy for the business to believe that a purchase from a vendor is all that is required. (We've all seen that 100 times.) The CIO is there to remind the business of the very hard (and expensive) work it takes to implement a real solution and to derive meaningful information from it. It's the CIO, with his or her process and information perspective, who is uniquely positioned to articulate the metrics of value relative to any technology-enabled project, which, today, is nearly everything.

  3. Everything is Being Outsourced: If properly managing and extracting value from information assets that are fully under your control is hard, it's 10 times harder when an outsourcer or cloud-based solution provider is involved. The challenges of information security, management, governance, integrity, integration, and meaning increase dramatically. Without a CIO (and his team) to focus on these issues, who will do it? Certainly not the functional outsourcer: It's way out of scope for them. The business? Of course not. They don't have any of the necessary skills or knowledge. It's the critical role of IT.

The opening salvo

This is far from the last word on the role of the CIO. In fact, it's only meant to be the opening salvo. But it's an important one. It's important because it directly answers the questions that are driving some to think about demoting the CIO (including many CIOs themselves). It's important because it is rooted in what organizations really need. And finally, it's important because it builds on what CIOs can and should be doing for their organizations; today, and into the future.

Agree? Disagree? Have another answer to the big three challenges? Post a comment below or email me directly at mjs@marcjschiller.com

About the Author

Marc J. Schiller, author of "The 11 Secrets of Highly Influential IT Leaders," is a speaker, strategic facilitator, and an advisor on the implementation of influential analytics. He splits his time between the front lines of client work and evangelizing to IT leaders and professionals about what it takes to achieve influence, respect and career success. Download a free excerpt of his book at http://11secretsforitleaders.com

This article was originally published on 10-31-2011