CIOs Sound Off on a Role in Flux

Add business partner, co-collaborator and, um, anthropologist to the growing list of IT executive skills, said CIOs at a recent panel in San Francisco.

The CIO's job today isn't an easy one, with the changing role requiring new skills on top of old ones. But the silver lining is that the CIO has never been more relevant, say CIOs speaking last week on a panel held at identity management vendor Okta's San Francisco headquarters.

"You need anthropological skills," says Ralph Loura, vice president and CIO at The Clorox Company. "My marketing IT team comes out of the Jane Goodall school. They go out and observe marketing in the wild, understand what they're really trying to accomplish, and then come back with ideas on how to help."

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(l-r) CIO Ralph Loura, CIO Dan Willey, SVP Evan Trent, CIO Carl Eberling, CEO Todd McKinnon

This is a far cry from the good old days when an IT leader just needed to be good technologist. It used to be easy: ask users for requirements, take notes, do a waterfall-style project, deliver something at the end, and then do post-live fixes. You would nail it 80 to 90 percent of the time, Loura says.

If you didn't like the job, you could jump to another industry. It didn't really matter what your company did because the CIO's role was pretty much removed from the business. During the ERP craze, a CIO had to be good at project management. During the outsourcing trend, a CIO had to be good at vendor and contract management.

In fact, IT's history has been about highly technical integration of software and processes, a newly acquired company's IT systems and IT-related geographic expansions. It was about owning complex technology, assembling pieces, and hardwiring them to get a specific outcome.

CIOs still need to be top-shelf integrators, marrying pre-built solutions, cloud-based models, on-premise models to solve today's issues. This time, though, there's a business twist to integration efforts.

"Understanding what technology can do and explaining how that can help your business is probably the biggest part of the role," says Dan Willey, CIO at agricultural products distributor Wilbur-Ellis.

CIOs and IT people tend to isolate themselves and get stuck in the features and functions of technology. They don't not want to venture out to other departments and interact with marketing and sales folks who have great people skills. But this behavior cycle needs to be broken, say CIOs.

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Encore Capital CIO Carl Eberling related that his company was developing an open-space floor for employees. Talking with the IT team, Eberling said, "It's going to be cool, kinda fun and hip." One of his directors replied, "Carl, do you see anybody that's fun?"

"Along the Goodall line, you have to embed people," Eberling says. "You really don't want to draw them into your kitchen; you want to spend time out in their world."

Adds Loura: "The CIO role is more relevant than ever, but only if you've transformed to being a co-collaborator and business partner in this idea of discovering value."

Tom Kaneshige covers Apple, BYOD and Consumerization of IT for CIO.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @kaneshige. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, Facebook, Google + and LinkedIn. Email Tom at tkaneshige@cio.com

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