Why IT managers need an intentional CIO

When you look at Paul Bellack’s data, it’s a wonder any enterprises still have a CIO.

I met Paul, a former interim CIO at Hudson’s Bay and Speedy, last week to go over the Canadian results of IBM’s recent global survey of about 2,500 CIOs. As I reported last week, there were some interesting regional differences among Canadian CIOs, but a common theme was the lack of technical background among the latest wave of IT decision-makers. This has been an emerging trend for a while now, but some of Big Blue’s stats put some numbers behind the talking points.

According to respondents to IBM’s survey, 21 per cent create business strategy as a member of the team, 25 per cent present that strategy jointly with others on the senior management team and more than 35 per cent decide on business strategy as a member of the most senior management team. That’s a lot different than the shadowy, “advisory” role many CIOs have been encouraged to take on. It also underscores the fact, however, that many IT managers are being led by someone with a business background who has been parachuted in because it’s felt the IT department can’t properly articulate IT value or develop business strategy.

“If you extrapolate this, the CIO just becomes a business guy or gal,” Bellack told me. “What doesn’t change is that someone has to worry about the technology standards. Someone has to drive the innovation process.”

That’s not much of a job description, and it may be why some “accidental CIOs,” as I like to think of them, may shift out into more of an operations role within a short time period. I don’t think many organizations are doing much to evaluate what the long-term effect of this will be on IT staff recruiting, development and retention.

Instead of achieving alignment between business and IT, which takes a lot more work on communication between technologists and their line-of-business counterparts, it could be that many enterprises are opting instead to simply sidestep the issue by putting in someone they see more as one of their own. There’s nothing wrong with that, necessarily, except that it means the CIO role will evolve from a legitimate brass ring for aspiring businesspeople to a career pit stop. We’re talking about a future in which IT managers are the sighted leading the blind. To play a bit on Nicholas Carr, this approach suggests that not only does IT not matter, knowledge of IT doesn’t really matter.

While we’re trying to develop programs and campaigns to incite young people about getting involved in technology, we also need to start creating courseware and an industry that invites technically-savvy executives to build upon their IT expertise before they take on the CIO role. We need intentional CIOs – people that deliberately seek out the role, who want to nurture promising IT managers, and see technology as less of a stepping stone than the thing that’s allowing the stepping to happen.

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