Traditional vs. Digital CIOs: Survey Reveals a Growing Divide

CIO magazine’s 13th annual State of the CIO research reveals stark contrasts between traditional CIOs who focus more on internal operations and digital CIOs who expand IT’s influence externally to work directly with customers and business colleagues.

In our 13 years of conducting our annual State of the CIO survey, we've never seen anything quite like this year's results. Our profession has become a house divided, with traditional service-provider CIOs on one side and business-focused, digital-strategist CIOs on the other.

"As we plow through this period of digital disruption, where established rules for competing may no longer apply, some CIOs now question what they want for themselves," Managing Editor Kim S. Nash writes in our cover story ("State of the CIO 2014: The Great Schism"). "The profession is changing fast in an atmosphere where colleagues sometimes look upon a traditional IT group as a hindrance to corporate success."

Nearly half of the 722 CIOs and IT leaders responding to our global survey say their IT groups are viewed by business colleagues primarily as cost centers or service providers. That's a deflating statistic to report after so many years of strategic business talk from CIOs everywhere.

The brightest--and most instructive--spot in the research comes from the 25 percent of CIOs who are thriving as business peers and game-changers. The rest are somewhere in between, walking an IT-business tightrope across the great divide.

Traditional cost-center CIOs turn their gazes inward, our research shows. They fine-tune IT operations, deploy new systems and control IT costs. They may work as many hours as leading CIOs, but they tend to get fewer results, less success and lower salaries.

Thriving CIOs behave quite differently. They focus externally and meet with customers. They make friends in the C-suite. They keep IT credibility high across the organization. Our story highlights some compelling examples of CIOs who exemplify that kind of business leadership at companies such as Boston Scientific, CUNA Mutual Group, GAF, Jacobs Engineering, Kroger and Whirlpool.

At building materials company GAF, for example, CIO Adam Noble sends IT staffers out to collaborate directly with customers on topics like security and mobility. At CUNA Mutual, CIO Rick Roy encourages his team to think through the customer experience so they can create IT products to improve it.

The best CIOs, ultimately, will be the nimble, adaptable ones who find the right balance between internal and external focus. As Whirlpool CIO Mike Heim advises: "Your best tools are stamina and natural curiosity."

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