Leadership optimize

Former CIO of the FBI comments on shifting role of the CIO

Darwin John comments on the executive's changing role.

The changes roiling the world of enterprise IT have made the job of chief information officer too big for one person to handle, says Darwin John, the former CIO of the FBI.

John says that the tasks handled by the CIO have broadened so deeply and now cross so many disciplines that the CIO has become more of a quarterback of the "Office of the CIO" than an executive equipped to make decisions in a vacuum. “I believe that the need has been there for a while,” John says. “One piece of evidence is the short tenure of CIOs. The reason that the tenures are short is that it’s an impossible assignment.”

John is not alone in this belief. Faisal Hoque, the chairman and CEO of Enamics, a management and consulting firm aimed at CIOs, also thinks that a fundamental shift has occurred. “Because of the complexity and often the global impact of IT, the CIO has to parse more day-to-day specialized responsibilities and decisions to others within his domain.” Hoque also is the founder and chairman of the board of the BTM Institute, an organization aimed at enabling companies to better benefit from new technology.

In addition to being the point person for the company’s information technology department, the CIO needs to interact with other management executives, such as the CEO and CFO. The emerging concept, Hoque says, is “a team or council governance model where people come together with different strengths versus a more traditional hierarchy. It’s more toward the team than the individual.”

All this leaves relatively little time for studying the bits and bytes of enterprise technology. “It may have crossed the point where [the office of the CIO has become] the integration point for everything. I am convinced that we may want to move in that type of governance model.”

John and Hoque agree that close oversight of technology—part of the traditional role of the CIO—is being taken over by the chief technology officer. Says Hoque: “You'll find that the more technical responsibilities and decisions regarding data centers, emerging technologies, etc., will be deferred to the CTO. We are seeing more distinction between the CIO and CTO roles because the CTO is taking on a more specialized, technical oversight role, while some of the other day-to-day functional responsibilities are being conferred on divisional CIOs and VPs of business applications, or the heads of the PMO [project management office] or chief architect, all of whom are direct reports to the CIO.” Thus, the distinction between these various posts is sharpening. “They are really fundamentally different,” John says. “They are very much complementary, obviously, but they do draw on different strengths and gifts that that individual might have.”

Relieved, at least to a great extent, of the need to be intimately familiar with every technological development and nuance, the CIO assumes a role not unlike the President, who has heads of each department—the Cabinet—report to him. The CIO, John says, has a short list of important tasks: to exert his or her influence both to those in the IT department and to make sure folks in other departments are aware of what IT’s view and needs are. The other key task is to council those under him.

Though there are deviations, the basic model has essentially been established, John says. “The CIO is an externally focused person, also the integration point for the office, and you have a CTO who would be very focused tracking emerging technology, what’s possible, tending to the architecture, and then you have another person who has an internal focus. There is a derivation of that in which a program management office can be a fourth component.” The program manager, he says, is in charge of ensuring that ongoing projects are on track.

While CIOs always have had exceptionally complex and demanding jobs, the past few years have made it clear that no one person can handle everything. “There is such a commingling now of technology with business that you really need someone who is focused primarily on the strategic application of IT and can protect the interest of the enterprise at large,” Hoque says.

He feels that, by and large, organizations “get it.” “While not many companies have an entity called 'The Office of the CIO,' companies are starting to put in place formal supporting structures, instead of ad hoc groups created to service special projects or large initiatives, which, in the past, disbanded once projects were completed,” Hoque says. “Now, standardized functional groups assume these responsibilities.”