The Changing role of the CIO

This post sponsored by the Enterprise CIO Forum and HP.

I’ve been writing for months (years?) about the changes coming to IT and the role of the CIO.  My “New CIO” topic is littered with posts about the changes being seen today and those changes that are coming down the road.

Many others have been writing about it too. Joel Dobbs talks about topic (and his previous musings on the topic) over on the Enterprise CIO Forum in a post titled The times, they are a changin’—Fast!. There are many many others out there writing about the topic too. At last count, there were 976K results in google on the “changing role of the CIO”.

So…obviously there are a lot of people thinking about the topic and writing about the topic.

I just wonder…who’s doing anything about the changing role of the CIO?

Is the CIO and/or IT group taking the reigns in hand and driving their future?  Or…are we in IT allowing others to plot our course for us?

Reading some of the articles/posts out there…I see many instances where the organizational leadership is directing the changes being seen by CIO’s and IT professional. Take for instance, the description of the creation of the “Chief Digital Officer” by Starbucks. This doesn’t appear to be a CIO or IT driven change.  Also…take a look at the recent hiring of a Chief Technology Officer at JC Penney’s.  Again…doesn’t appear to be a CIO/IT driven change.  But…both changes will lead to a dramatic effect on IT and the CIO role.

These organizational driven changes are happening for a reason. For too long, the CIO has been focused on ‘keeping the lights on’. They’ve been plumbers and electricians doing what they are asked by the larger organization…and charging an hourly rate to do it.

Now…every organization needs someone to keep the lights on. We need IT operations…a much aligned and overlooked aspect to IT. But…IT operations is becoming a commodity (or has become a commodity).  Do we need a CIO focused on operations…or do we need a CIO focused on strategic initiatives and how the organization can use technology, information and knowledge to grow and be more competitive?

The answer…at least for me…is the latter.  In fact, I wrote a post last year titled Splitting IT – Operations and Innovation where I touch on this very topic where I wrote:

I see organization talking about, and moving to, a split between Operational IT and Strategic IT.  Most organizations have already done this to a point…but i see this split happening much more broadly in the near future. Operational IT contains much of what we see today with IT operations. Security, servers, infrastructure, Support and all those things that help ‘keep the lights on’ for organizations. Strategic IT contains the enterprise architects, business analysts and business technologists.   This is the team that drives innovation. This is the team where you hire extremely creative people and point them at the business problems and ask them to solve those problems.  Maybe the name of this team/group changes from Strategic IT to something more along the lines of Business Technology…because that’s what they need to focus on.

A lot of the changes I’m seeing today in organizations are following this same type of thinking. The old IT guard are being relinquished to the “operational IT” group while the more progressive and forward thinking of those in IT are being asked to help drive technology from a strategic standpoint. These people are being moved into other groups in the organization and given “non-IT” roles…which is sad…because they could just as easily have done their role within the IT group…if the CIO & IT group would have had the foresight / ability to drive real change and value.

CIO’s and IT Pro’s – what do you want to be in 2 years….the person/team that keeps the lights on…or the person/team that gets to play with all the new technology?  I prefer to be a part of the teams that get to play with the new stuff and I’m helping my clients move in that direction.

What about you…are you driving your change and complaining about others forcing change upon you?

Image Credit: change By busy.pochi on flickr

This post sponsored by the Enterprise CIO Forum and HP.

8 responses to “The Changing role of the CIO”

  1. Brian Shea Avatar

    Hi Eric,
    Great post. I think you’re spot-on with your recommendation to build innovation centers in IT. I attended a conference last week and got a look at what one of those innovations might look like. Dave Wieneke, Digital Strategist at ISITE Design, gave an excellent talk on trends in Digital Marketing. And he talked about the evolving role of online tools (websites, mobile, SM, etc) that businesses use to interact with their customers. Originally, those tools were considered to be an “add-on” to the traditional customer interactions. But more and more, those are not an add-on to the business, in the eyes of many of the customers those tools ARE the business.

    And leading the transition from traditional businesses to digital businesses requires some serious innovative thinking and integration between disciplines: technology, marketing, design, customer service, just to name a few. The “order taker” technologists can’t lead this, innovative and collaborative technologists need to.

    You can check out Dave’s slide deck and Storify summary:


    1. Eric D. Brown Avatar

      Thanks Brian. I’ll check out Dave’s slides

  2. Peter Kretzman Avatar

    Eric, with all due respect, I couldn’t disagree more, and, in fact, just wrote a blog post last month that covers exactly this ground. ( )

    Truth is, no CIO worth his or her salt in the last decade (or more) has been focused merely on “keeping the lights on”, as you put it. Rather, the role of the CIO in any organization beyond the trivial has actually been to be the master juggler: a barrage of business projects, multiple conflicting priorities, uncertain requirements, integration needs, legal constraints, regulatory necessities, AND, yes, keeping things running.  But a relatively small part of the job has been to keep things running that are now commodities (and indeed, I speak to the commodity aspect in my post). And most CIOs would gladly relinquish most of the now-commoditized headaches (OS patching, just to name one thorny example that sucks up time and resources but provides no visible business value — until it’s not done well, of course).  There’s plenty of other work that remains and that won’t go away.

    So in other words, I reject the false dichotomy you’ve presented: whether the CIO should focus on operations or on strategic initiatives, and I argue strongly, in that post and in many others, for how intertwined those aspects are. Try and tell the Seattle Mariners today about how it would be better for their CIO to focus on strategy, and I don’t think you’ll have a very receptive audience: they had a massive IT failure at the game last night, knocking out their point-of-sale systems for most of the game, affecting their concession revenue and angering a good percentage of their customers to boot. I’ll bet their CIO won’t be going to a lot of meetings this week on “strategy.”

    It’s also unfortunate how the push towards strategy often gets expressed: you say, for example, that you’d “prefer to be a part of the teams that get to play with the new stuff.”  Well, of course you would: and that’s part of the stereotype of the (ineffective) IT leader, who quickly abandons interest once it’s gotten beyond the cool “play” stage. That abandonment (and general attitude) can often turn life on the operational side into a nightmare.

    We don’t need one person focused on operations and another focused on strategic initiatives, in other words. They’re really inseparable, intertwined, co-dependent. It works really badly when the operational side of IT functions independently from strategy concerns, and equally badly when the strategy side is out there dreaming stuff up without either accountability or even much interest in actually making it work over time.  Separating the roles into two different individuals at an executive level is a recipe for IT failure.

    1. Eric D. Brown Avatar

      Peter –

      While I respect your opinion, I disagree wholeheartedly.

      A recipe for “IT disaster”? No…in my opinion, the disaster has already happened.

      I see CIO’s and IT groups continuing to focus on the wrong things. I see CIO’s and IT groups who are so focused on their own importance and success that they fail to see how unimportant they’ve become.

      It’s responses like yours make me feel extremely disheartened for the role of the CIO and IT group. Rather than really think about what issues are at hand today…I read things like “I reject the false dichotomy…”.

      Go ahead and reject that dichotomy Peter. But let me assure you that it isn’t false. Organizations today are building additional technology resources without IT and without the CIO because CIO’s have been happy to juggle rather than deliver honest to goodness value.

      The ‘old guard’ are continuing to ‘juggle’ while the rest of the organization looks for someone that can provide real innovation and real leadership. The CIO can either stop juggling and start deliver real value or they can continue to argue how important their “juggling’ has been.

      Personally, I don’t like jugglers. I can tell you from experience…from MY experience…that organizations aren’t looking for jugglers anymore. They are looking for people that won’t use process as a gatekeeper. They are looking for people that won’t write long, drawn-out arguments for why the CIO and IT groups have been doing the right things.

      The CIO can be a part of the innovation…or they can continue to argue about how important their juggling abilities are.

      1. Brian Shea Avatar

         Hi Eric and Peter,
        Interesting point-counterpoint. I actually hear a common theme in both of your Comments: the critical importance of organizational integration inside and outside of IT.

        Peter: you’re making the case that in order to be effective, IT needs to integrate Strategy and day-to-day IT Ops (and all the other traditional IT functions: software development, etc.).
        Eric: you’re making the point that in order to be a better strategic partner, IT needs to free itself from commodity functions and become more closely aligned with internal business groups.

        When reading both your Comments, my response was Yes and Yes. It’s hard to disagree with what either of you wrote. You’re both after the same thing: IT excellence. And, no doubt, both of you would acknowledge that both forms of integration above are critical to IT’s success. IT needs strong integration between traditional IT functions (strategy, Ops, application development, etc) AND strong integration between IT and IT’s business.

        So what organizational structures are needed to create these two types of alignment? I think it depends on the organization. A quick story: I was talking with two friends recently and they were both talking about reorganizations at their companies (both large, successful companies). As they were describing the details of their respective re-orgs, I realized that their companies were going in the exact opposite direction organizationally. One company was trying to move from a centralized organization to an organization where IT subgroups would be aligned with individual business units. The other company was trying to consolidate all of its business-specific subgroups into a centralized IT group. Each company chose a different organizational structure because of a number of reasons: the particular challenges, histories, perspectives and biases of the respective companies and industries.

        But at the end of the day, both companies will need to integrate internal IT functions AND integrate effectively with the business.

      2. Steve Romero Avatar

        Eric, I
        think you missed Peter’s point entirely – likely because of his use of the word
        “juggling.” I understand how Peter is using the word – to
        reflect the ability to accomplish multiple objectives (throwing and catching
        numerous balls) with limited resources (two hands). I have no idea how that
        analogy precludes the ability to “provide real innovation and leadership
        or connects to your segue of “people who use process as a
        gatekeeper.” Peter simply used the juggler to illustrate the need for the CIO to address every need due to the inseparable nature of strategy
        and operations.

        And Peter is
        not dismissing your notion that far too many CIOs neglect strategy and
        innovation. If you were a regular reader of his blog, Peter has spent years
        providing CIOs with advice in regard to optimizing the delivery of IT services
        so CIOs can rise above the day-to-day machinations of operations. In doing so,
        they can spend more time following Peter’s loftier advice regarding how IT can partner with the business to drive innovation and
        lead the way to realizing the most value from enterprise investment in
        information technology.

        comments aside, I cringed when I read your post. Whenever anything
        “splits” a single entity into two parts all I can see is the
        “white space” between them. Splitting operations from strategy and
        innovation actually enables if not forgives exactly what your post is condemning
        – the inappropriate singular focus on IT operations and process. Instead, I
        argue we don’t need these “new” CIOs to partner with the
        business and drive innovation, we need the “old” CIOs to do it. All
        of the calls for the new CIO are inadvertently pardoning all of the CIOs who
        have allowed or enabled or forced the business to marginalize IT over the past
        10 years.

        I wrote a
        book last year called, “Eliminating ‘Us and Them’ – Making IT and the
        Business “One.” In my book I lament the divide between the business
        and IT. And that divide was first fostered by the business’ delegation of
        information technology decisions to IT, which eventually degraded into
        abdication of those decisions. The business has long-neglected it’s role in
        governing IT – ensuring all information technology decisions were right for the
        business, delivering value, and managing risk, resources and performance.

        IT should be
        a strategic asset to the business, but most business leaders only value IT for its
        ability to deliver efficiency and drive down cost. Yes, far too many IT organizations
        and CIOs do little to deter this inadequate view of IT, but CIOs can’t unilaterally
        change this relationship. The business must acknowledge and accept its
        responsibility to govern IT. When they do, they’ll identify the right CIO for
        their enterprise – and the last thing they will want to do is drive a divide
        between IT strategy and IT operations – creating yet another dysfunctional
        “us and them” relationship.

        Here is the last post I wrote on the topic of the CIOs. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

    2. Steve Romero Avatar

      Spot on Peter. I could not agree with you more.

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