What’s in a title?

First let me say how pleased I am about the opportunity to be a regular contributor to CIO Canada.

In this column I am going to talk about the challenges of being a CIO or other senior member of an IT leadership team. There will be little in the way of technical discussion. The focus will be leadership (setting a direction and exciting others to follow), as well as management (getting things done through other people).

I want to start by discussing the title CIO.

Chief Information Officer (CIO) has caught on in North American organizations as an acceptable title for the head of IT. Occasionally, we hear the title Chief Information Technology Officer (CITO), but more often than not it is CIO. Is this name really descriptive for the mandate and responsibility of those proudly bearing this title on their business cards?

Let’s think about the depth and breadth of this organizational asset called information.

On the depth dimension, the lifecycle of information can be quite involved, from the point in time that an event occurs to capture raw data, through its edit and verification phases, followed by some processing cycles, reporting, retention and eventual destruction (with the exception of some vital records). This can be a long lifecycle, depending on the classification of structured or unstructured information we are evaluating.

On the breadth side, there is information which is processed and stored on some kind of information technology, while there is a significant amount which never finds its way near a computer or some form of magnetic or optical storage. In other words, information the CIO is probably oblivious to — information whose handling processes he has no control over.

Comparing the CIO with the CFO

Considering the breadth and depth of an organization’s information, what degree of custodianship does the CIO truly exercise over it, compared to, say, the CFO’s custodianship over financial resources? Money is an asset belonging to the organization, but the CFO certainly has custodianship power as to how it is planned, received, spent, managed and controlled.

Does the CIO have the same degree of custodianship over information? For the information that does not come close to computerized technology, not very much; and even for the structured and unstructured data which does, there could be many processes in the total lifecycle of information over which the CIO has little or no say. Any time some business design initiative involving information processing is initiated in an organization without CIO involvement, there can be no custodianship exercised.

Continuing this comparison, the CFO has tremendous influence over the lifecycle of cash in an organization, from the time that it is received as revenue through to the time it is turned into a tangible asset or used to pay expenses (or better yet, returned to the shareholders). Further, the CFO function has significant control over the processes, checks and balances involved in the entire cash lifecycle and in the planning of financial resources. In short, no one would dare implement money-handling processes without CFO involvement.

The CIO as information custodian

Lately, I have been seeing more cases where the CIO, with appropriate resources such as business analysts and business-process specialists, is gaining more influence over the information lifecycle, even if such information does not come close to computing technology. This is probably caused by senior managers becoming increasingly frustrated at the unreliable nature of information — errors and incompleteness — triggering a realization that as an organizational asset it must be better managed and controlled.

So, what’s in a title? Using our financial analogy, the CIO title implies true custodianship over an organizational resource known as information, from the time it is captured through to its ultimate disposition. This implies a large influence (and in some cases, control) over the processes used in capturing, validating, managing, retaining and making the information available for use. Without that span of responsibility, then perhaps Vice President Information Technology is a more suitable title.

By the way, the letter “O” signifies Officer, a word which has a fairly significant legal meaning for organizational accountability. Are we ready for that?

Graham J. McFarlane, P.Eng., ISP, FCMC is a consultant who has worked with IT management, both in Canada and internationally, since 1978, focusing on improving IT effectiveness. Prior to this, he spent ten years with IBM Canada.

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