I recently read about Professor Thomas Davenport, who teaches MBA-level courses at Babson College. The professor asked his students to indicate by a show of hands who aspired to the top corporate IT job: CIO. As with several past informal surveys, not a single student raised their hand.
Every leader is now an IT leader
The CIO role was once the obvious choice for a technology-oriented executive. After all, aside from a few product-focused roles, there were few opportunities to lead the tech decisions of a large organization.
However, as IT has transitioned away from data centers and standalone IT groups at the tactical level, it’s also become a core component of most other leadership roles. Leadership positions from the Chief Operating Officer (COO) to the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) must now exhibit the tech savvy that was once the province of IT.
Additionally, the CIO role is saddled with significant operational baggage. We’ve all heard the stories of Fortune 500 CIOs being summoned to fix a peer’s laptop or wayward projector, and while these anecdotes are amusing, if rare, most CIOs are still ultimately responsible for everything from network operations to email delivery. It’s understandable that a role where you’re blamed for every ERP outage is less attractive than a CMO role that’s responsible for digital marketing strategy, or COOs developing an innovative Internet of Things proof-of-concept.
Is the CIO role worth saving?
With non-IT roles now controlling many of the most interesting and innovative aspects of corporate IT, and the CIO saddled with a massive portfolio of “utility” technologies that only generate interest when they fail, it begs the question: if no one wants to do this job, is it a role worth keeping? Additionally, the “death” of the CIO role has long been predicted, though it was often due to the role disappearing, rather than the decrease in the number of people interested in filling that role.
There’s a legitimate need for operationally-focused IT leaders who can manage a cadre of staff that “keep the lights on” while also formulating a strategic IT vision. Where the CIO role is inherently flawed is that it often expects the same person to be equipped to handle both these diverse disciplines.
At the executive level, companies should consider separating the operational and strategic disciplines, depending on the needs of the company. As cloud services and the ability to outsource many of these operational functions grows, there’s an opportunity to accelerate this shift. Even without resorting to external parties, savvy companies can equip CIOs with the appropriate authority and discretion to build effective operational staff, and stop expecting that CIOs should be equal parts strategist and technician. Essentially, the CIO becomes an internal consultant who charts the future course for corporate IT, and leverages internal and external resources to execute that vision.
Preparing for an empty seat
While this internal consultant role has long been suggested by myself and others, there’s a strong possibility that few qualified candidates will actually want this role, as evidenced by Professor Davenport’s students. If this trend continues, companies will increasingly have to push operational IT management to mid-level roles, vendors, or line of business IT managers. While this scenario is viable, it will require someone on the executive team to ensure a consistent and thoughtful IT evolution, lest each tech savvy leader effectively implement their own distinct IT vision.
The bottom line
Pundits have long hypothesized that the CIO role is “dead.” Rather than dozens of candidates clamoring for a non-existent role, perhaps companies should prepare for an empty CIO chair, with no one interested in filling it, even as we enter a new “golden age” of IT.
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