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.

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PERFORMANCE: Stand and Deliver

One of the most vexing and divisive questions CIOs have faced over the years is "What is the value of IT?" The inherent slight contained within the question is matched only by the difficulty in attempting to give an accurate and honest answer.

"It's rare to find an executive who doesn't think technology is important," says IT strategist Potts. "They don't always know why, but they do. Yet you can't put a number on it."

How, then, are businesses supposed to measure the performance of CIOs and overall value of their IT departments? The easy answer is: It's difficult. Sure, a CEO can look at uptime/downtime figures, project portfolio management numbers, and budgetary considerations to gauge how IT is performing.

But identifying precisely what differentiates an operational CIO from a truly strategic one is less metrics-based and more based on the perception of IT, the profile of the CIO and the how often the CIO leads or co-innovates outside the IT department.

Just what do today's and tomorrow's strategic CIOs look like? Shaklee's Harris says: they have to be creative and excellent negotiators; they have to be out there with the business all the time, not back in their office or IT shop; and they have to be, at least to some extent, visionary—able to see beyond today and how things are done now.

Those who will be called CIOs in the future will come from anywhere and everywhere, say CIOs and analysts interviewed for this article. "People are going to flow in and out of technology as you move up the ranks in the organization," says American Airline's Ford, "rather than just having a career in the technology world." These IT leaders will still have to know technology—but a top-notch CTO will likely be any CIO's right-hand man, say CIOs.

Shurts, whose background was not predominately in IT, refers to the next generation of CIOs as being "tweeners—someone who's always been between IT and the business," he says. "To me, they are some of the most valuable people a company has, and they are people who will end up being great CIOs. But you have to grow them." Rarely does a CIO move beyond the CIO role: Kevin Turner (former CIO of Wal-Mart and now COO of Microsoft) and Dawn Lepore (former CIO of Schwab and now CEO of Drugstore.com) are two notable examples.

But that should change in the future. Babson's Davenport recalls a research project he did in the late 1980s on aligning IT and the business. "We talked about what would be the best possible state in the future. Our conclusion was a state of pervasiveness where you could no longer tell the difference between IT people and businesspeople, and it would just be everywhere. I would say that we're closer to that with IT in some organizations, like at Google, where everyone's an IT person."

As to American Airline's next CIO, Ford has some ideas. "Being the only position where technology is thought about or implemented is not going to be the role of the CIO in future," he says. "It's a partner role that provides a platform and leadership model for others to be able to take advantage of that of inside the corporation."

CIOs today who want to be CIOs tomorrow had better take note of the momentous changes happening all around them.

"The IT market of buyers, sellers and intermediaries has evolved all over again just like it did 10 to 12 years ago with consumers and businesses becoming increasingly expert at how to invest in IT and create value from IT," says Potts. "So the greatest danger in any environment where evolution has happened is not spotting that the evolution has happened."

Thomas Wailgum covers Enterprise Software, Data Management and Personal Productivity Apps for CIO.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @twailgum. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline. Email Tom at twailgum@cio.com.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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