I Was A CIO: Do COOs make CIOs redundant?

Technology is now so ubiquitous and so central to business enablement that arguably the responsibilities of any business executive will include most of the essential elements of what today is in the CIO’s exclusive domain. Is it therefore not plausible that 10 years from now, the Chief Operating Officer could take over most of the CIO’s responsibilities, rendering the CIO position extinct?

According to the largest global survey of Chief Information Officers, the role of today’s CIO continues to profoundly evolve. CIOs have a “new voice,” and now spend less than half their time on traditional IT management. CIOs are now engaged in multiple, diverse, business-facing tasks. The question is whether their specialized IT management skills are sufficient to preserve the role of the CIO into the future.

IBM conducted face-to-face interviews with almost 2,600 global executives in charge of their firms’ information systems to get a view into the world of the CIO. It found that today’s CIO has one foot firmly planted in the business and one foot in IT. They are much more involved in driving smarter innovation in the business, squeezing business value from IT investments and generally operating as a full-fledged member of the senior management team collaborating on business issues and strategy.

This new CIO profile represents a fundamental change from 10 to 15 years ago, when the CIO was principally charged with back-office technology management to “keep the IT lights on.” That is exactly how I would have described my initial CIO roles in several of Canada’s large retail and service businesses.

The largely universal acceptance of IT’s value-add to business enablement and now common-place IT outsourcing arrangements have fueled the transition of CIOs into the business. Another key driver has been the advancing commoditization of routine elements of IT service delivery and core business support. We now have universal standards such as ITIL, CMMI and CoBIT to describe leading practices for IT management, and ever-present ERPs like SAP to enable standardized, optimized, routine business processes. Due to these factors, the mechanical elements of technology management are now arguably more like “paint by numbers” than creating a Michelangelo classic.

Second nature

A final driver of the CIO transition is demographics. To the new generation of management now entering the executive suite, technology is second nature. They probably spend more time on their smartphones and Internet browsers than on any other activity, so the notion of technology as something not completely integrated into day-today business is foreign to them.

Having ascended to my first of several IT executive leadership positions 25 years ago, I have personal exposure to this sea-change in CIO positioning. Back then, the senior IT manager was only concerned with keeping the IT lights on at the lowest cost. Marking the slow evolution of my CIO role along the way were key milestones like getting invited to a business meeting for the first time, coming up with the first technology-enabled business innovation or being asked to lead a major business initiative that had little to do with IT. In retrospect, those now seem like “baby steps,” but they have all lead to the transformation of the business-oriented CIO.

A CIO role that is much more business oriented implies changes in many aspects of the ideal CIO profile. Personal professional skills important to their success are no longer about being the best technologist anymore – skills like political savvy, relationship management, vendor management and strategic planning will dominate. Moreover, measuring CIO success will be progressively more integrated into overall business measures, as the CIO role increasingly blends seamlessly into the business.

As that blending continues to advance, could we provocatively conclude that at some point in the future the need for a CIO will disappear entirely? As more and more CIOs take on broader operational responsibilities drifting into the realm of the COO, might these two executive roles merge? After all, providing essential day-to-day IT services fundamental to operating the business would be better aligned with operations if IT management was fully integrated into it.

My experience tells me that while the COO could take on the day-to-day roles of the current day CIO, there are key executive responsibilities that don’t fit into the COO mandate or typical skill set.

In the enterprise of the future, a senior executive with intimate involvement in business strategy will still be required to continually develop and evangelize a vision of architecture. The CIO will need still need to translate the operating model of the enterprise into technology capabilities and be the keeper of technology standards in support of that vision.

Two paths

As well, that leader will have to centrally champion technology innovation, and provide unbiased and informed governance over ever-advancing technology choices the company faces. Such challenges will continue to be critical to the business, and will require a unique enterprise view and executive skill set that fuses business and technology. It’s my hypothesis that those challenges will comprise the mandate the next generation “CIO.”

This view of the future offers today’s CIOs with two very different executive career paths as traditional CIO positions split into either a broader operating role (i.e. COO) or a technology stewardship function. The choice will depend on personal skill set and professional aspiration as both roles will be essential in a thriving enterprise of the future.

IT has been a component of business for more than 50 years. Its management has morphed constantly over that period. The CIO is still clearly needed in the executive suite more than ever, but the role of the future CIO will most certainly continue to evolve.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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