About fifteen years ago, I was interviewing Oracle's head of marketing. I asked him what was the secret of selling to CIOs. His answer: "We don't bother selling to the CIO. We generally work directly with the CEO."

That answer surprised me because I had always assumed that the CIO was the decision-maker for sales of computer hardware, software and services.

Since then, though, I've noticed that tech vendors who sell to CIOs seem to get caught up in long sales cycles that often end up going nowhere.

By contrast, tech vendors that sell directly to operational managers (i.e. have P&L responsibility) tend to have short sales cycles that close quickly.

Over the years, I've come to the conclusion that the decision-making power of the CIO is over-rated and perhaps even mythical. Here's why:

CIO is a dead-end job title.

Even back in 2007, before the smartphone/tablet revolution, CIOs weren't getting promoted upward, according to Computer World magazine:

"The Fortune 500 [have] only a handful of former CIOs in the top job. You'll find a similar situation around the world; check out the leadership of the companies in France's CAC 40 index, Britain's FTSE 100, Hong Kong's Hang Seng and Germany's DAX."

ComputerWorld called the failure of CIOs to secure a corner office "one of the biggest mysteries of our time." There's nothing mysterious about it, though, once you realize what CIOs actually do, which isn't all that much.

Despite the hoopla surrounding the title, most CIOs are glorified IT directors. Insofar as they do anything, it's managing a data-center/help desk and filling an empty seat on various executive committees.

Few CIOs have experience in finance, sales or marketing, or any experience whatsoever working with customers. They're primarily technicians and bureaucrats and thus not top management material.

More important, CIOs don't have P&L responsibility which means that their role by its very nature remains advisory. A CIO may have an IT budget, but doesn't really determine how the money is spent.

C-Level titles are dime-a-dozen

In the olden days, companies had a President (who ran the company) and a Vice President who stood in for the President at meeting he couldn't attend.

Eventually, though, companies started handing out the "Vice President" title as a perk, creating the need for a new title: "Senior Vice President."

With companies structuring themselves in to separately incorporated businesses, the "President" title also became more common.

As the "president-level" titles became too common, companies attempt to reestablish the symbolic hierarchy by creating C-level executives.

Originally, it was just supposed to be a CEO, a CFO and maybe a COO (who played the role of the original "Vice President.) Beneath them were the hordes of VPs and SVPs.

Over time, though, other C-level titles started popping up, including some that are obviously powerless, like "Chief Happiness Officer."

As a result, C-level titles just don't retain as much clout as in the past and CIO was never in the first rank (along with CFO and COO) in the first place.

CIOs Have Historically Impeded Progress

For nearly fifty years, CIOs have clung to old technology when newer, better technology was available.

In the 197os, CIOs clung to clunky IBM mainframes when minicomputers and workstations were cheaper and had better software.

In the 1980s, CIOs clung to centralized computing and character cell terminals rather than embrace the PCs and Macs that people actually wanted to use.

In the 1990s, CIOs clung to tightly-integrated client-server applications and generally fought against cloud-based applications (like Salesforce.com) that ran across the Internet.

In the 2000s, CIOs clung to overly-complicated ERP systems and PCs while their users were rapidly embracing smartphone and tablets.

In other words, CIOs have always been the rearguard defending previous decade's technology. They tend to impede rather than drive progress.

CIOs Have Failed Their Prime Directive

When CIOs fight against new technology they always surface the same justification: the new technology isn't secure compared to the older technology.

Now, either that claim is true, or it's false or the reality lies somewhere in between.

If it's true and the new technology was indeed less secure, then CIOs were perfectly correct to fight against it. However, in each case, the CIOs failed to win the battle and the new technology took over. (CIO FAIL)

If the claim is false and the new technology is as secure or more secure than the old technology, then CIOs were just wasting everyone's time fighting against the adoption of the new technology. (CIO FAIL)

If the truth is somewhere in-between and there are (or were) advantages and disadvantages to both the old and the new technology, then the CIOs have really bollixed everything up, because based on the multiple cybersecurity scandals, the average corporate system is airtight as a sieve. (CIO FAIL)

In other words, there's no getting around the fact that CIOs have failed in their primary task of keeping corporate information secure, a decades-long debacle that's eroded their credibility.

Enterprises Are No Longer Monolithic

As originally conceived, the job of the CIO was to be the person responsible for a company's information, a job description based upon a 20th century model of the corporation, a model that is coming apart at the seams.

Today's "enterprise" is likely to consist of a combination of employees, interns, contractors and vendors, all of whom work together but without being structured into a single organization. As a recent article in The Atlantic Monthly pointed out:

"Business IT is deeply influenced by a normative vision of "work" as something that occurs in a singular place, secured and enjoyed by authorized people who enter and exit at clearly defined times. But as anyone working today knows, the office is as proximate as their pocket."

In addition, much of that data that's important to a company today is likely to be "big data" that's stored in various places and databases throughout the web. It's not clear what role a CIO has to play in an enterprise that's inherently amorphous.

One could argue that these new complexities makes the CIO's role more rather than less important. But is that really the case? Maybe I'm missing something, but it seems to me that CIOs are mostly hanging on for dear life rather than leading the charge.

Published on: Nov 30, 2015
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