The New New CIO Role: Big Changes Ahead

It's make-or-break transformation time for CIOs. Those who can only take orders are being ousted. Those who seek to become true strategic business leaders should concentrate on four key areas.

CIOs know all about change management—from jettisoning legacy apps, to prodding line of business VPs to share virtualized resources.

But today, CIOs themselves are in the midst of a make-or-break personal change-management project: CIOs who can only take orders, who can't speak the language of the business, who can't step out of the proverbial back-office and into the front lines of customer service, social media or supply chain management will soon go the way of ancient tech gear—remembered fondly on occasion but sidelined in the future.

Simply put, there is no future for the "order-taking, looking only for efficiencies" type of CIO: Change or be ousted. "Do not expect IT value from a CIO with an operational profile," proclaims a 2010 KPMG report. Chris Potts, an IT strategist and author of FruITion, says "the big game in town now has moved on from efficiency—although that is still important—to how everybody exploits IT to create value and what that does for a company's investment plans and the changes that [the company] makes."

CIOs are not oblivious to their decades-long struggle: They know they need to be more "strategic." And they're certainly sick of hearing about "business-IT alignment." Has there ever been another department so ruthlessly grilled about the value it is (or is not) delivering?

But facts are facts. Those perceptions of the CIO who doesn't get the business big picture still linger today.

The CIO extreme makeover necessitated right now isn't a mere cosmetic rehab, however. It will demand a mighty effort from those IT leaders whose comfort zone involves four walls, lots of servers and voluminous air-conditioning.

In fact, say CIOs and IT strategists interviewed for this article, a CIO who wants to transform must concentrate effort in four key areas. We'll call them the "4 P's": Perception, Profile, Participation and Performance. Each is critical to understand, analyze and explore. Those CIOs who've nailed the "New New CIO" role—and all four of the "P's"—say the job demands much, but can be unlike any other out there.

"The CIO role is a very exciting role to play in when you don't think about it as an all-technology role, but when you think about it as a business leader role," says Wayne Shurts, CIO of grocery giant SuperValu. "You're a part of the strategic leadership team; you're on the inside of all the issues to help the company win today, tomorrow and the next decade."

Do You Really Want to Be CIO?

First things first: Who'd actually want to be a CIO now? The question might sound flip. Naive, even. But consider how companies have traditionally thought of the CIO role and those people given the assignment: Men and women who knew how to keep the trains running on time and lights on. Grown-ups who knew their servers and storage, but were prone to techno-babble once called to The Big Conference Room. Strategists? Hardly. Business leaders? Yeah, right.

For that matter, just what is a Chief Information Officer actually supposed to do? Unlike, say, the CFO title, "CIO" has been a nebulous moniker for many business execs from the get-go. The title is "very diffused," says Abbie Lundberg, the former editor of CIO magazine, now a consultant working with CIOs on strategy and executive communication skills. "It has tons of potential and can mean different things in different companies, depending on what their goals are."

It's no surprise, then, that Tom Davenport, Babson College's Distinguished Professor of Management and IT, says this: "I hardly get anybody ever who wants to be a CIO, which is probably indicative of something. And if they do want to be a CIO, it's like: 'Fine, it'd be useful to rotate through this for a while on my path toward CEO.' I think people respect technology, but there aren't that many people anymore who want to be career CIOs."

Why? "It's just not the center of the action anymore, in terms of technology," Davenport says.

As strange as Davenport's last statement may sound (read it again), one can easily make the case that IT leaders face unprecedented challenges today. First up, there's the "C" word: Complexity. According to the annual IBM survey of CEOs, 80 percent of CEOs are worried about growing complexity in their businesses (of which IT is a big concern) and more than half of them admit that they are ill-equipped to deal with it.

Then there's the New Normal economic climate laden with instability; and a push for ever greater business efficiency and "do more with less" mantra. Finally, there's the advent of cloud computing, social media and mobile devices that have greatly empowered workforces everywhere.

"The whole consumerization movement is really tough on CIOs," says Davenport, "since now, for probably the first time in history, people have more powerful technologies at home and in their pockets than those that are provided by IT. I also think IT is more perceived as a barrier to getting things done now more than it ever was." One stark example: Articles in The Wall Street Journal and Forbes openly encourage execs to bypass IT for their sales, CRM, marketing and business intelligence applications.

Where does that leave the appointed leader of corporate technology strategy?

SuperValu's Shurts, for one, doesn't view the "going around IT" managerial initiative on tech purchases as a bad thing, necessarily. "The key is having an IT department that is relevant, proactive and helpful. Because where I've seen business units getting their own technology and implementing it, for some of that, IT has to look itself in the mirror, because IT probably has been slow to act, been not too easy to do business with. That has probably lead the businesses to say: 'I have to go do something, because the world's getting by me.'"

In short, he says, "We, as IT, need to get on the front foot, because we've been on the back foot."

If you're ready to move to the front and change into a strategic executive, dive into the four areas where you must concentrate.

NEXT: What's the perception of you and your IT team?

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