Looking Back: The Growth of the CIO Role and IT Value

From green screens to flat screens; from a desk in the basement to a seat in the boardroom. Twenty years in review.

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We’ve also reported the meteoric rise of Kevin Turner—from cashier at Wal-Mart to CIO, to CEO of Sam’s Club and now COO of Microsoft—who embodies everything that being a strategic, business-driven executive has to offer. “I have always prided myself on being a business leader and customer advocate first, and being a technologist second,” says Turner, who also this year joined the CIO Hall of Fame. But no matter the individual story of how they have risen to the challenges of being a CIO, what’s noteworthy is that they all know there’s much more work to be done because they now have the ability—the know-how, the resources, the credibility—to provide so much more.

“We’re able to deliver applications and new tools at much lower cost,” Doucette says. “Servers that are faster, better and cheaper. Storage—who would ever have thought that we would be able to store 20 gigabytes on a chip the size of a fingernail? We’re able to show IT as a percent of revenue. We have the ability to drive revenue growth or productivity into the business.

“What better role to be in than the CIO?” Doucette asks rhetorically. “I’m the only one in the company that impacts all employee productivity.”

The Early Daze

The lofty and all-inclusive role that Doucette describes traces an arc that could not have been imagined, given the CIO’s humble beginnings as “the computer guy.” “There’s no comparison to the way technologies are used today: wikis and blogs and instant messaging and paying bills on a cell phone,” says Forrester’s Orlov. “There’s just such a mind-boggling difference.”

CIOs now boast about finally having the proverbial “seat at the table.” But back in the 1970s and into the ’80s, most were lucky to even get a glimpse of the “table” from their backroom fiefdoms. Data processing was the moniker for early IT shops, and their task and main value to the organization was their ability to automate transactions. “The smart companies that were successful understood that information about transactions would be as valuable as the physical good itself,” Orlov says. Big Iron and IBM ruled the day.

Data processing soon evolved to MIS, as companies realized that someone actually needed to manage their burgeoning computerized underbellies. And with that came the command-and-control mind-set that still lingers today. “That generation of MIS was oriented around control,” recalls Cooper, who, interestingly, didn’t get her start inside data processing or MIS but on the business side of Miller & Paine, a department store chain. Because of that, she was an early devotee of best-of-breed solutions.

“I didn’t grow up with the mainframe and IBM as the only provider. I often picked the most competitive technology that fit the purpose for the time, and that was often not IBM,” says Cooper, who eventually landed at American Express. “I didn’t really know anything about the unwritten rule: To maintain career, you do IBM. It didn’t make sense to me.”

Cooper’s naïveté, as she terms it, seems prescient today. But to shake the damaging “cost center” label in the early 1990s, CIOs would have to start innovating while keeping the lights on. There seemed to be no shortage of commentary or advice directed at the nascent CIO function, including from business executives who knew just enough about IT to be dangerous. IT consultants and new business mantras (re-engineering and Six Sigma) were ever-present.

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