Are we asking too much of CIOs with our board level expectations?

When it comes to the plight of the CIO the word 'should' tends to be used more than 'is'. There is a sense - admittedly propagated by people like me - that the role of the CIO is broken and needs to be fixed.

Such 'shoulds' include:

  • The CIO should be on the board.
  • The CIO should decouple themselves from technology management.
  • The CIO should prepare for war against the CMO or face data centre exile.
  • The CIO should be a business leader first and CIO second.

I for one have carried these beliefs around for some time. There is of course a strong possibility that such beliefs become perceived as facts and all engagements with CIOs become exercises in filtering out perspectives that do not support these 'facts'.

My role as a judge on the CIO 100 panel exposed me to many CIOs who support my beliefs. Could it be that such beliefs are misshaping the role of CIO to the detriment of business and society? I don't think this is the case but we have to perhaps reflect on the following realities:

  • What are most CIOs paid to do?
  • What do most CEOs expect from their CIOs today beyond the role they were originally recruited for?
  • What are the actual aspirations of most CIOs today?

Looking at each question in turn.

It would appear that many CIOs are paid to be technology managers. There is a trend towards technology broker, but technology remains the common theme. Email doesn't work, it's the CIOs problem.

Technology management as we all know is extremely challenging. Legacy system integration coupled with transitioning from systems of records to systems of engagement, BYOx, talent scarcity and the relentless drive towards operational efficiency and business resilience require expert management. Sound decision making can only be achieved with genuine knowledge of technology.

As we pressure CIOs to aspire to the boardroom, to support our vision we bundle these activities into the derisory title of IT management. This is both dispiriting and confusing for many CIOs. "If I don't do it, who will?"

In terms of CEO expectations, I can see a trend towards increasing digital alertness. However go back a few years and many CEOs would have seen IT as operationally but not strategically important and so would have had a technology manager in mind when recruiting their CIO.

But now CEOs are revved up in respect of 'digital' and 'Big Data'. It would appear that some CEOs see these as very unrelated to technology management and thus do see them as their CIO's responsibility. Hence the emergence of the Chief Digital Officer and the Chief Data Officer. For me these are roles that 'should' be carried out by the CIO. But again a focus on reality will serve us best.

But the most important issue to consider is whether CIOs in the main have the aspiration to be on the board. I have a number of active discussions on this topic taking place on LinkedIn and I am seeing the full response spectrum spanning from 'without doubt' through to 'it's unnecessary'.

If I was a CIO recruited as a technology manager I probably wouldn't have the mental bandwidth to stop and reflect on my next career step given the scale of service I am expected to provide coupled with its associated risk profile.

Thus I feel we are being unfair to the average CIO for goading them into developing a whole new skillset having both worked so hard to climb the technology management career mountain and now peddling flat out to keep the factory lights on despite the increasing number of moving parts and decreasing budget.

But as the CIO 100 has demonstrated we do have world-class business leaders who happen to be world-class CIOs. And these are not CxOs who have been 'transmuted' to CIO, but 'roll your sleeves up techies' who have served their technology management apprenticeship.

So is there a way we can clear the career thicket for aspirant CIOs such that they can believe a boardroom seat is possible and in turn feel motivated to pursue it? Maybe apprenticeship is the way forward? It would be great if we could engineer our industry such that our best CIOs become mentors to the next generation.

Once we have this coaching/mentoring ecosystem in place I think the next career step for the CIO should be the CEO!

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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