CIO’s Role: Necessary or Superfluous?

Posted on November 30, 2011. Filed under: Uncategorized |

Recently a very insightful blog by Marc J. Shiller, with a provocative title, “The Role of the CIO: Why You Deserve to be Demoted,” crossed my desk.  It’s about all the rhetoric around the CIO role.  He’s noticed that lately there seems to be more focus than ever on the future of the CIO role.  “If you look at the volume of material being written about and discussed on the role of the CIO, it seems that CIOs are obsessed with this issue. That’s especially clear if you do a similar search on “the role of the CFO,” or even “the role of the CEO.”  he observes.  His blog then outlines the three reasons for demoting the CIO:

  1. “Today’s business managers are tech-savvy. They have grown up with technology, they understand it and they want to make their own technology decisions. They do not need a CIO slowing things down and making it more complicated. And don’t bother offering yourself as a “consultant” to the business. If they want a consultant, they will hire one with the specific expertise they need. After all, such consultants are a dime a dozen.
  2. “IT is ubiquitous and no longer offers a strategic advantage. It has become a commodity that can be purchased on-demand and in the cloud. (Notice your own words being turned on you.
  3. “What can’t be bought in the cloud can be bought from an outsourced vendor. From desktop support to payroll processing and on to nearly every business process, there are plenty of competent outsourcers out there to get the job done.”

His solution is a return to focus on the roots of the CIO, a focus on information, which helps counter these three reasons, since information is the real asset that is managed by the CIO.

This blog is particularly insightful and worth reading, if you haven’t found it yet you can find it here.  But it misses one really important aspect of the CIOs role and the role of information systems in our organizations.  Information management does not exist in a vacuum.  It’s part of the overall business toolkit just like financial management, people management, process management, and operations management.  We cannot look at IT assets, whether data, information, systems, hardware, or the IT staff themselves, outside of the context of the business organization. All of these components must be in alignment with the corporate strategy.  When taken out of context, and manipulated without thought of the consequences of the impact on the other components, it’s a recipe for disaster.

At the same time, IT assets represent significant investment for any organization.  To manage IT assets as silos, without regard to the interaction between them is also a bad idea.  How many networks does an organization need?  How many relationships with the cloud provider does an organization need?  Who manages the corporate level issues that balance out the cost savings gained by centralization versus the local control offered by decentralization? An overall IT strategy must be put in place to insure that corporate interests are addressed.  Local decisions on technology, applications, and outsourcing may be the best solution for the organization but the economies gained by corporate solutions must be considered before letting “1000 flowers bloom”.  Without someone charged with overall responsibility for the information systems strategy, a corporation is essentially moving ahead without a rudder to guide the ship.

So where does that leave the CIO?  What is the CIO’s role today?  All of the ‘reasons’ suggested by Mr. Shiller are, in fact, true.  Decisions can be made locally by more IT knowledgable managers than ever before.  Purchasing resources in the cloud or from outsourcers can provide local solutions, perhaps far superior to what the internal staff can provide. But to examine them out of context of the organization without an overall plan is similar to suggesting that no overall financial planning is necessary or that no overall people management is necessary.  It’s folly.

The CIO’s role is to create, communicate, and execute the information strategy of the enterprise, making sure it’s aligned with the corporate strategy, and in balance with the plan for people, finances, and operations.  That might mean being an information advisor rather than an information provider.   It might mean a completely different skill set than CIOs of even 5 years ago needed.    But no one else in the organization follows the management of information end-to-end.  And no one else make sure that information decisions at the local level are also in the best interest of the overall organization.  The CIO does that.

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One Response to “CIO’s Role: Necessary or Superfluous?”

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This is one of those perennially intriguing topics, though it does seem to get more interest as the ‘consumerization of IT’ gathers steam. I like the post, and generally agree with your closing paragraph, with one exception.

You say that the CIO’s role is to “create, communicate, and execute the information strategy of the enterprise.” I don’t agree that the CIO can or should “execute” the information strategy. Execution is, has been and always will be distributed and dispersed across the enterprise and, increasingly, across its ecosystem.

I think that today’s CIO has to focus on:
1. Ensuring that the firm’s strategy both understands and exploits information and IT
2. Empowering people to get the most value out of IT and the firm’s information consistent with #1 above, and…
3. Providing the infrastructure (broadly defined) that enables #1 and #2 above

What I find especially interesting and challenging about the CIO’s role in practice today is that it has in many cases become obsessed with control and what I call “preventing bad change”, which is counter to what is needed today. I’m reminded of the wise leader that observed, “The more I try to eliminate my job and my department, the busier and more valuable we become.” Too many CIO’s, IMHO, have not yet recognized that reality.


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