Do We Really Need CIOs Any More?

by drjim on May 29, 2008

CIOs Need To Focus On Business Tasks

CIOs Need To Focus On Business Tasks

There was an interesting article in an issue of CIO Insight that talked about the changing role of CIOs. The basic point of the story was that since today’s CIOs are spending so much time (and $$$) on keeping their firms systems up and running, that they are losing their position at the strategy table. The thinking is that if a CIO doesn’t have the time to spend on thinking about where the company needs to go and how it’s going to get there, then he/she doesn’t need to take up space at the table where the firm’s long term direction is being decided.

The article went on to point out that CIOs are being relegated to reporting to the CFO. This basically reinforces the view of the IT department as simply being a cost center. Of course there is a plus side to having a good CIO/CFO relationship; however, I think that losing access to the CEO has got to be a bad thing for both the CIO and his IT team.

With the arrival of grid (aka “utility” computing), it sure looks like the CIO who is only in charge of managing existing equipment and systems will soon be no longer needed. That also means that the DBAs and other support personnel may also be at risk. Talk about change happening!

So what’s a CIO (and for that matter an IT department) to do? Clearly what a CIO used to do and may be doing today is not going to cut it going forward. So what is a CIO to do? Well, most CIOs already split their time between operations and strategy. The problem is that too many of them spend their time on the operations issues because that is what they know best — it’s where they come from. Additionally, just like every IT worker out there, CIO fear having their technical skills grow dull. Where CIOs need to be spending their time is on learning where the business is going and then making sure that the IT systems are going to be there to support the firm.

We get back to that issue of alignment, but its even more than that. CIOs need to create a way for the operations side of their job to run on autopilot — no problems, but also not requiring any time. Sounds easy, but it never is.

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

bradgarland May 31, 2008 at 11:50 am

To me, this falls back to two fundamental requirements when filling the CIO role.

1) Delegate properly. If the CIO is unable to get away from the operational role then they are pigeon holing themselves into a less strategic role.

2) Hire well. Delegation is all about hiring well, if you can’t find good people to pass the operational jobs too, you are always going to just be a ‘do-er’ with limited value to the executive team.

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Dr. Jim Anderson May 31, 2008 at 5:30 pm

I think that you hit the nail on the head. I read Jack Welch’s bio a few years back he said something that really stuck with me. He stated “All I could do as a CEO was two things: hire/fire people, and set budgets. Everything else was in the hands of others.”

Delegation is soooo hard to do in a technical field because you start to see your skills grow old and out of date. Soft skills like being a good manager are just as important, but we seem to value them less because they don’t seem to be as “real” to us!

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Kate Carruthers May 31, 2008 at 8:51 pm

Sounds like it is actually time to talk about CIO recruitment. Perhaps the criteria for CIO now are not just “is really good at tech stuff”? Perhaps we need to take people with solid line business experience & educate them in tech stuff and make them CIO?

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Dr. Jim Anderson June 1, 2008 at 9:45 am

Kate has a good point and in fact, I’ve been seeing a lot more of that. It was not that long ago that the quality of a CIO was judged by his/her technical prowess — where had they started, what development projects did they know, and which vendor’s product line did they understand inside & out.

Lately I’ve been seeing more of the business unit heads being promoted to be CIO at several firms. What’s interesting for me is that they all seem to be doing fairly well. You can imagine their complete terror at finding themselves thrown into our technical pond. I’ve seen them revert back to the business skills that made them successful in their previous business unit job.

I view this as another clear example of writing on the wall: IT’s got to learn to align with the business world. We’ve been hoping that they would come over to our side, but I don’t think that that is going to happen. Oh yeah, and they’ve got the money…!

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Cliff Berg March 13, 2009 at 3:23 pm

My comments on the CIO Insight site:

We have been hearing this lament for years – decades now? The premise of the commentary is right on. No debate there. And there is general agreement on this issue in practically every forum in which I find myself discussing this.

But HOW does a CIO fix this? It is not merely a matter of “being better”.

My book Value-Driven IT (http://ValueDrivenIT.com) is all about how to fix this: at an individual level (from the IT architect and project manager up through the CIO), and at an organizational level through tackling head-on the problem of how to turn an IT group into a pro-active value-focused group that understands how to demonstrate the value that it delivers. That gives the CIO ammunition and something to talk about instead of how cheap the IT projects can get.

The CIO cannot do it alone. The IT staff have to play their part to provide the information needed to make sensible, value-based tradeoffs at a portfolio level. To accomplish this, frankly, IT folks are going to have to learn some new skills…. It is time for business to start to demand that they do.

– Cliff

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Dr. Jim Anderson March 13, 2009 at 6:48 pm

Cliff: The devil is always in the details! You are correct – what was that phrase from the Clinton era “it takes a village”. You can apply this to IT as well. Lately I’ve been hearing the word “fusion” when talking about how IT should be working with the rest of the business – get as close a possible and stay there. I’m all for this idea; however, I’m not sure how you’re going to keep the “remote” IT staff that are working closely with the business units in line with the rest of IT. Once again, it’s the details that will trip you up…

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Cliff Berg March 14, 2009 at 3:34 pm

Hi Jim.

You hit the nail on the head.

Again, my book addresses this issue, head-on, because that is what the book is about. The premise that I offer is that instead of building or owning “systems”, IT should teach the business how to do it such that the systems meet enterprise-level objectives, not just LOB objectives. In order to keep the work focused on what matters, IT needs to provide expertise for how to model the value tradeoffs between LOB requirements and enterprise requirements. For example, how much is flexibility in an IT system worth? IT should be able to show the business how to model that. That way, tradeoffs can be done that accurately compare the enterprise value of various requirements, including those that do not benefit the particular LOB. This helps enormously at a portfolio level, when projects must be compared. With my approach, the portfolio team has a standard model from which they can compare all projects.

– Cliff

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Roger DeFoe March 16, 2009 at 5:27 pm

I have an entirely different take on a CIO. He/she MUST listen interactively and frequently to his/her staff in formulating a strategy. Too often CIOs will decide in absentia of the technical input needed to reach a valid decision that will serve the business well.

After all, how can someone who doesn’t touch the “stuff” every day know why one solution fits the LOB (line of business) better than another? I’ve seen CIOs buy into the solution hype too often and then stick their IT staff with the technology. The technologists are often subsequently blamed.

That said I firmly believe that a CIO is vital to the life of a company. He/she just has to be the right one – a person who seeks technical input so as to fully understand what “this vs. that” really means, along with the the associated risks. Then he/she can do each does best – make an informed decision that factors in the technical, business, and financial aspects of the applicable IT solution.

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Dr. Jim Anderson March 19, 2009 at 7:48 am

Roger: I agree with you 100%. A good CIO is actually a very hard thing to find – just enough of a bunch of different skills without having too much of anything that would bias him/her in one way or another. I seem to recall that it was General George Patton who said it best: “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.” A CIO who understands this will go far…

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