TECHNOLOGY

Are CIOs an Endangered Species?

An online debate examines whether a once-vital executive role's time has passed.
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The Chief Information Officer is one of the most important high-level executives in any business, but also one of the most maligned. The role has changed in myriad ways as technology has advanced, organizations have moved their IT infrastructures to the cloud, and other execs such as Chief Digital Officers have taken on many traditional CIO functions.

Forrester Research VP Sharyn Leaver and Dachis Group Chief Strategy Officer Dion Hinchcliffe recently took part in an online debate over whether the role of the CIO is still relevant today. (Leaver argued yes, Hinchcliffe no.) Ever wondered about the importance of the position in your company? Here are four of the major questions to consider, and the arguments on each side.

Why have CIOs traditionally had trouble aligning with the business side of their company?
Many companies suffer from what Hinchcliffe describes as a "pernicious IT/business divide," which often results when the CIO rises to the position from within an insular IT department. That's one of the primary reasons for his bleak forecast for the future of the CIO. "As business becomes more technology-centric, business people are demanding more from IT these days," he writes. "When they don't get it, they simply route around them, creating competition and motivation for IT to align. I expect that IT departments will ultimately align, become outsourced/cloudsourced, or have many of their responsibilities--especially market-facing functions--moved to the CMO or CDO."

Leaver acknowledges that some CIOs struggle to address their company's business needs, but does not fault them in every case: "Frankly, they aren't often incented to do so--many CIO still don't share common goals with their business peers."

Whom should the CIO report to?
There was more agreement on this subject than the others. Hinchcliffe takes the old-school view of corporate org charts, writing that "only the CEO is principally charged with moving the company forward into the future, and the CIO should be building a technology foundation for this evolution."

Leaver also says the CEO is the appropriate manager, with one caveat."[It is] important that the CIO reports to a tech-enthusiast," she writes. "So in those firms where the CEO is not bullish on the importance of technology to their future (and there aren't many left out there), the CIO would be better off reporting to the COO, CMO, or even Chief Customer Officer."

Why have CIOs gotten a bad rap in recent years?
Right or wrong, there's a perception that people in the position aren't doing enough. "Many CIOs fail the customer-obsession test because their teams spend too much time, attention, and money marginally enhancing back-office and IT processes, and haven't built credibility with business peers in customer-facing roles," writes Leaver. That lack of visibility may just be inherent in the job, Hinchcliffe adds. "The CIO has become the proverbial 'Maytag repairman,' meaning they're only called or thought about when something goes wrong."

If CIOs do go away, what C-level executives will take their place?
There are plenty of potential heirs to the CIO throne, but the line of succession remains unclear. "CDOs and CMOs may be best positioned to take on this role, but neither has the technical expertise of the CIO," Leaver notes. Adds Hinchcliffe, "In today's enterprises, responsibility for technology is simply becoming more widely distributed... Many CFOs are now positioning themselves as the decision makers in IT, including extensively outsourcing much of the tactical aspects of IT these days."

After reading the points and counterpoints, visitors to ZDNet were invited to vote on whether they thought the role of CIO is still relevant. A 73 percent majority voted yes, agreeing with Leaver and suggesting that it isn't time to put CIOs out to pasture just yet.

Readers: Now it's your turn. What's your take on the relevancy of CIOs?

IMAGE: torkildr / Flickr.com
Last updated: Nov 22, 2013

DOUG CANTOR | Staff Writer | Senior Editor

Doug Cantor is a senior editor at Inc.com. His work has appeared in Bloomberg Businessweek, Popular Science, Esquire, and other publications.




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