Why RIM is giving its CIO an expanded role

It was buried amid the details a new COO and the layoffs of thousands, but Research In Motion made another interesting staffing decision on Monday which could have repercussions across the IT sector.

The BlackBerry maker’s update on its cost management program included the following paragraph:

Robin Bienfait is maintaining her responsibilities as CIO, including BlackBerry Operations, Customer Service and Corporate IT functions, and also taking on responsibility for the Enterprise Business Unit focused on delivering outstanding customer service and extending RIM's leadership in the enterprise sector.

This doesn’t sound like a promotion, exactly, and it will probably be the one area that gets overlooked in the mountains of coverage that pertain to the crisis at Research in Motion, but other IT leaders should take note. For one of the world’s most successful technology vendors, particularly among corporate users, Bienfait has a relatively low profile. An exception was three years ago, when she led a Webinar called The Speed of Innovation – How IT is Driving Change in the Mobile Workspace. She also gained some notoriety in 2009 when she reportedly said that RIM records all staff BlackBerry phone calls, a comment that the company later said was taken out of context.

Bienfait’s expanded role does not sound like a sales role, either, exactly, but more that of a community advocate – someone who can speak to direct experience in using BlackBerry and PlayBook technology effectively to drive business outcomes. She could become the company’s best case study, much in the way that Intel makes use of its CIO, Diane Bryant.

If there’s anything strange about Bienfait’s new responsibilities it’s that RIM’s biggest challenge has traditionally been in the consumer space. Until Apple turned the mobile world upside down with the iPhone, RIM’s BlackBerry had a huge lead over almost everyone else. That it is putting its CIO as the face of its Enterprise Business Unit now suggests RIM wants to re-establish its credentials among a very important set of stakeholders – the kind of people who actually shell out for BlackBerry Enterprise Server, and who can strongly influence the purchasing decisions of regular employees. If she succeeds, the role of the CIO might come to be seen as much an evangelist as an agent for execution. Good luck to her.

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