Why CIOs Struggle to Become More Strategic

By Brian P. Watson  |  Posted 12-07-2007

Why CIOs Struggle to Become More Strategic

CIOs like to say IT has gone from commoditized utility to strategic function within their organizations, but too many of them don't walk the walk. So says Patrick Gray, founder and president of Prevoyance Group, a strategic consulting firm, and author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value Through Technology (Wiley, November 2007).

Gray spoke recently with online editor Brian P. Watson about the struggles CIOs face in transforming IT.

What's wrong with IT?

It's been a pretty stagnant corporate function. The analogy I drop in the book is the supply chain. For years, supply chain meant, "Keep guys in the warehouse, have them put stuff in boxes." Then Wal-Mart came along and threw that whole idea out the window and made supply chain the core of its business.

There's an opportunity now for companies to make IT maybe not the core of their business, but to really have it be a strategic asset instead of the utility that sits in the corner and keeps all the lights in the server room blinking.

What is the CIO's role in making that happen?

It's not OK any more to just be a really great manager of technology. If you can't do that, you shouldn't be in the building, let alone in the C-suite. It's going to be more of a relationship role. The CIOs will have to have the CFOs as their best friend to justify some new efforts they want to undertake.

The CIOs of the future are going to live or die by innovation. They're going to look around and say, "I see an opportunity because I'm so connected in the business, here's something I can do to leverage that." But it may not be technology--it may be process change, or using some system or process authority in a new way.

Most CIOs might say they're doing that now.

Most aren't, and the silver lining behind that is that in the last few years, it's almost universally acknowledged that IT is broken in its current incarnation at most companies. Three or four years ago, it was "yeah, we need to have business alignment and talk with the CIO," but no one actually did it.

On the ground, it was do IT as cheaply as possible and "sit in the corner and be quiet, Mr. CIO." Probably 20 percent of companies are doing it well, but most are starting to realize they need to do more with technology. Page 2: IT's Black Eye


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What's holding CIOs back from making a bigger impression?

There's no real career path for a CIO. It's a huge problem, in terms of getting people through the ranks and hiring them externally to be CIO. And once they become CIO, what do you do with them from there? There's the old joke that CIO stands for "Career Is Over."

What's the root of that problem?

If you took 100 Harvard and Wharton MBAs and asked them what they aspire to, I'd be shocked if you got more than two that said CIO. That's a reflection that IT has a black eye.

Jobs are being outsourced, and no one wants to be a Java coder anymore. The industry has traditionally done a bad job of hiring women. The educational system is set up to bring up coders, the real engineering-oriented technical folks. A lot of CIOs who come from the tech area aren't used to dealing with people from the Csuite; they're not used to building relationships across business units or talking about returns and investments. They're coming in at a disadvantage.


How realistic is it to think that will change?

We're never going to get back to the point where people are enrolling in computer science and math classes thinking they're going to have a long, fulfilling life writing code in a cubicle somewhere.

If you pitch it to the business schools as solid business roles where they're dealing with a specific business area--which happens to be technology--as opposed to roles where you're a techie, that would do a lot to make people start seeing the CIO and other upper-level IT positions as valid places where they really exercise skills and develop skills up the corporate ladder. There's no real managing technology discipline at these schools where an aspiring CIO would want to go.

While your buddies are doing case studies, you're taking a Java class. It's just silly.