by Carl Wilson

The CIO Role Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

Aug 16, 20077 mins
IT Leadership

Marriott International CIO Carl Wilson tells why it's up to today's IT leaders to teach future CIOs tomorrow's skills.

In 1987, I was working at The Pillsbury Company under Vice President of Information Management John Hammitt (the title of CIO was not widely used at that time) when CIO‘s founding Editor Marcia Blumenthal came to visit with him about ideas on feature articles for a startup magazine for our then-emerging profession. I went along to the meeting, I must admit, primarily for the free lunch. Now, 20 years later, I am honored to be asked to reflect on the changes in the CIO role for the magazine’s upcoming 20th anniversary in October.

When the inaugural issue of CIO hit the streets, successful CIOs were mostly seen as strong technologists. Many of the leading technologies of the time—MS-DOS, Apple’s Macintosh, IBM PCs, Windows and analog cellular phones—were designed to enable individual productivity. Reflecting the standalone nature of those technologies, companies created predominantly siloed IT functions that reported to finance or to a unique line of business, with limited cross-functional interaction.

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Our business peers thought of us as data processing or information systems managers and not chief information officers. IT, not the business, “owned” the technology, and we were solely responsible for making it work.

The Cross-Enterprise Era

And then, a little over a decade ago, the IT profession began to come of age with the rise of technologies such as the Web, Java programming and wired and wireless local-area networks. These tools made it economically feasible to enable business processes across functions and speed up decision making. CIOs started to look horizontally across functions and became involved in all aspects of the business. Business leaders began to see technology’s potential to integrate business processes, and they began to seriously assume their role as the ultimate owners of that technology. CIOs gained meaningful seats at the table; we were at last positioned to automate processes horizontally and achieve the real value of IT.

My experience at Marriott International mirrors these changes. I joined Marriott 10 years ago as its first CIO and an officer of the company. Our technology then was predominantly back-office. With the advent of CRM, IT moved out to the hotel front desk, enabling guest recognition. Then IT moved into the guest room with high-speed Internet access. Now with our Web reservation systems, technology is in our guests’ homes and offices. brings in more than $4 billion in annual revenue—that’s IT driving top-line growth. When our Chairman and CEO Bill Marriott launched his public blog Marriott on the Move earlier this year, I knew that Marriott had reached a new milestone in the power and reach of technology. His blog has had more than 175,000 hits since its launch in January of this year. The expectation that we will take care of the back-office technology has never gone away, but now we also have accountability for this broader scope of IT.

Marriott and other companies recognized, however, that a more strategic role for the CIO alone is not enough to sustain a real business-technology partnership. To build a common language and trust between our business and technology associates, my team and I created organizational structures, compensation plans and career development programs to drive alignment. We also educated our business partners about what technology could and, sometimes more importantly, could not do to support Marriott, and we educated ourselves about Marriott’s key business drivers. We have moved beyond alignment to convergence, and Marriott’s business and IT teams jointly recognize the potential of technology-enabled business systems.

While technology advances and IT-business alignment account for some of the changes we have seen in the role of the CIO and our respective organizations, other factors have also come into play. Certainly, major events like Y2K and 9/11 revealed just how reliant our companies are on technology. With these events, concepts such as business continuity and redundant layers of communication, which had once been side notes, came to the forefront as mission-critical business needs and leadership opportunities for the CIO. Incidentally, I’m one of the people to blame for Y2K. I recall being in a cubicle at Bendix during the late 1960s designing file layouts and trying to fit everything into 80 columns, when a colleague said to me, “You know, this won’t work when we hit 2000.” I laughed and said, “This won’t be around in 2000.” What did I know?

More recently, outsourcing, information security, risk management and globalization have grown in relative importance to most companies. Business leaders are looking to IT leaders for our insights, recognizing that we have often pioneered these areas on behalf of our companies as we have looked for greater efficiencies or simply managed day-to-day operations.

Are We There Yet?

Today the role of CIO is a far cry from the days of this magazine’s launch. CIOs and our teams are accountable not only for using technology to enable business processes but also for helping shape the strategic direction of our companies and drive profitability. We are now expected to be business leaders foremost. Our business peers ask us for our thoughts about corporate direction or policy apart from technology. They also approach us with insightful ideas about how technology can transform our business.

Yet, for all of our advances over the last 20 years, there are still companies and industries where the CIO role lags behind its true potential. Where IT is part of the company’s end product or service, there is usually an aggressive approach to IT leadership enabling and shaping business value. Where IT is not a critical component, there isn’t that same pressure, and therefore many CIOs are slow to push the boundaries of their role and what IT can do. These companies will fall behind.

When I consider the progress we’ve made, and in some cases haven’t made, I think of one of the best pieces of professional advice I ever received. I was attending a meeting where David Packard, one of the founders of Hewlett-Packard, was speaking. And he said, “Recognize, reward and compensate your people on where you want to be, not where you are today, and they will get you there.” This is advice I encourage all IT leaders to take to heart.

The Next 20 Years

I don’t think the CIO role will split, be absorbed or disappear. We will need CIOs to be the general thought leaders and coordinators of business technology. But I do think some of the accountability for IT strategy will be shared with our business peers. That’s the best thing that could happen, because it means that even more of our people will be adept at applying technology for advantage over our competitors.

While the CIOs of the future will continue to be accountable for most of the work we generally associate with the position today, they will also need to be prepared to take on expanded leadership accountabilities. They may be leaders of enterprisewide shared services organizations, business process outsourcing departments, or change management and customer relationship management functions. It’s a logical leap: My leadership team at Marriott has a mixture of knowledge and skills with technology, consulting, MBA and finance backgrounds. It’s a business team. Anyone who wants to be the next CIO must step up, jump in and offer to help people in other areas of the company where their skills fit in. Our company expects that from us.

To support their expanded business roles, CIOs of tomorrow must create new ways of sourcing, developing and retaining top talent for their teams. Gen X and Gen Yare bringing to the workplace an intuitive grasp of technology–so much so that they will likely break most traditional business molds. That’s a phenomenal power that has to be harnessed and directed in the right way to make the company grow. If we include their thinking in our business processes now, we will likely find ourselves steps ahead of our competitors.

If we want to move forward as a profession, we will heed David Packard’s advice and will start building the IT organization of the future now. Otherwise, we risk waiting another 20 years to realize the next level of potential for IT in business success.

Carl Wilson is executive vice president and CIO at Marriott International, and a member of the CIO Executive Council. He was inducted into the CIO Hall of Fame in 2007.