by Jerry Gregoire

The State of the CIO 2002: The CIO Title, What’s It Really Mean?

Mar 01, 20024 mins

WHEN I LEFT MY CIO JOB at Dell Computer a few years ago for a glamorous career on this hot, dusty cattle ranch outside Austin, Texas, I thought I would have to leave my subscription to CIO behind (the horror!). No problem. I may not have a staff or even have a decent office, but I’ve got this here laptop?and around the ranch, that makes me the CIO. Well…the cows are impressed and so, I guess, was the CIO subscription department. The magazine now gets delivered here along with the feed catalogs. [Editor’s note: Actually, we gave him a complimentary subscription because he writes for us.]

Awarding myself the coveted title of CIO got me wondering about the irresistible attraction, the slapdash methods and the precise madness of creating, sporting and bettering titles. Important job titles are a kind of food chain of attraction, wherein each one of us becomes consumed by the title just one level more desirable than our own. And like underwear that won’t stop riding up, it’s impolite to mention and impossible to stop thinking about.

One of the things I’m going to miss most about the dotcoms is all of those silly-clever-stupid titles they made up to show they were hip enough to be taken seriously by VCs.

Titles are important to us. They are power, they are currency, they define us. Titles are also how we define class. Americans don’t like to discuss class. Our notions of self-improvement and self-invention make definitions of privilege and status messy. Hey, what’s that on your business card? Your income? The square footage of your house? Your family connections? No! It’s your title! Would anyone give up an influential title for a better parking space? A bigger office? A 10 percent raise? Of course not. Take, for example, one of my favorites, that network news staple and seldom-challenged title of activist. I’m immediately impressed with the moral superiority that activists always seem to have over us deeply committed inactivists. Well-constructed titles have a way of doing that.

At some moment in 1990, give or take, the data processing department became information technology. This was a bold bit of marketing since ones and zeros become information only if you squint your eyes really hard. They certainly aren’t the kind of information that delivers explanations or coherent representations. But as soon as it caught on, technology mechanics were credited with extraordinary power. A powerful resource needs a powerful leader with an impressive title. The CIO was born.

Unfortunately, the desirability of the CIO title (not to mention its low cost compared with handing out real greenbacks) may also be its ultimate demise. We’re currently experiencing “title creep.” At some large corporations, every division (every department) has a CIO. Siemens, for example, has a global CIO, two corporate CIOs, central office CIOs, operating company CIOs and over 50 regional CIOs. The designation “CIO,” as happens with other words and phrases, has been maimed and flattened with overuse, and the devalued title has led to “title morph,” a scramble for more imposing-pretentious-confusing monikers such as CTO, CSO, CKO, chief inspiration officer and God knows how many more.

One has to wonder what this says about the CIO’s real standing that other influential positions such as CEO, CFO and COO have not experienced this same “title creep.” The answer may be persistent confusion about the true nature of and qualifications for the CIO job. I’ve decided to start a trend by dropping my CIO title and just going back to being the vice president of IT. The cows won’t care. I suppose if I manage to attract a significant following, it could be a real problem for this publication. I recall reading that a similar situation occurred in the early 20th century at Surrey and Driver Magazine.