Ask TechRepublic members about the future of the CIO role, and some will tell you that the role has outlived its usefulness as defined today; others don’t believe organizations could function without one. We recently surveyed our members, asking them if the CIO role will become extinct in the next decade. The one consensus our members reached is that the role must not become stagnant—it must continually evolve to remain useful.

The question sprang from the session topic “Should you fire your CIO?” which was discussed at the Burning Questions 2002 conference, a gathering of leading practitioners and management experts sponsored by Harvard Business School Publishing.

We presented a short synopsis of part of the session during which Clayton Hubner, a Belmont, MA-based consultant and former CIO of Applied Power, predicted that the CIO role would soon be extinct. He compared IT management to that of electricity and phone systems, saying that companies don’t require chief electricity officers or chief telephone officers. Likewise, he said that the CIO position came about to fill a specific need, and that as a greater understanding of technology becomes ubiquitous, the CIO role will take on a new shape.

We asked our members what they thought of Hubner’s argument and how they thought the CIO role might mutate. We’ve gathered the best of their comments here. Find out if your vision of future CIOs matches theirs.

CIO role is disappearing
Louis Avalos, a senior technology manager in Orange County, CA, has been in the IT industry for 22 years, 11 of those in management positions. He said he believes the CIO role is disappearing, not because companies don’t need the expertise, but because executives from other departments have enough skills to forge an IT direction.

“Many CIOs are relegated to the world of taking care of the hardware and [are] barely involved in the business decisions that make the company live,” Avalos said. “Much of the hardware decisions can be easily outsourced; thus an outsourced CIO is a viable option. I see more and more departments taking back the IT work because they are the ones using it as well as providing direction as to where this IT should go.”

Avalos said that department heads are much more in tune with the company’s software and system needs, leaving “the almighty CIO” in danger of becoming extinct “or rather [in] a position that others can take over,” he said.

Old CIO said he’s seen a resurgence of outsourcing along with enterprise senior management making decisions that would normally be left to the CIO. “I think that the ultimate answer to the fate of the CIO will come down to how well the new generation of outsourcers, offshore resources, external hosters, ASPs, etc., can effectively take over the various processes,” Old CIO said. “If you believe that they collectively can scoop up all of the internal technology issues and manage them effectively, then [there’s] no need for a CIO-type function.”

Opinions seem to vary based on industry sector. For instance, member George Ewing said the CIO is dispensable in industries where IT has become ubiquitous, but in some fields, such as automotive retailing, CIOs are still very necessary.

A CIO by any other name
JimHM said it’s okay to kill the CIO position “if you wish to ignore current trends of how IT can be a lean, mean, fighting, cost-savings machine.” But if your company needs to increase productivity, eliminate redundant systems and applications, encourage reuse of components, and have someone who helps to align IT with the business’s goals, you might want to keep the CIO around. Likewise, ThinkITThru said that someone has to take final responsibility and accountability for the company’s IT assets, and that regardless of whether you call that person the CIO, CTO, or another name, the role will continue.

What may mutate the CIO role
Dominic Ulian, an SAP consultant, believes the CIO role will transform based on whether organizations move toward more distributed computing or stick with the “centralized monolithic computing system” prevalent at many companies. CIOs with centralized systems are challenged with delivery, development, stabilization, and administration of the applications that are running on these systems, while their customers are completely decentralized and spread throughout the business, with each business unit (BU) providing the funding to IT, Ulian said. This creates a CIO role that is more technical than organizational-based, he explained.

“Moving toward the future, if businesses continue with the approach that they are in today with regards to sticking with a centralized computing system, there will probably still be a need for a CIO in the traditional sense that we see today,” he said. “However, if businesses move towards a more distributed computing environment, then I would see the traditional CIO role morphing into a more organizational-based role with each department or BU having their own and being accountable to the business needs of their own specific department.”

Do the CIO job right
Several members commented that it’s not the true CIO role that will disappear, but the CIO role as some have been carrying it out.

“CIOs who consider themselves tech jockeys need to expand their horizons to earn their proper place as senior executives,” said Canada Geek. “If your company has a CIO who is nothing but a glorified IT manager, then yes, it is time to get rid of your CIO, and it is also time to hire a CIO who understands what their function is.”

Canada Geek argued that the CIO’s primary responsibility is to ensure that the information assets are safe, accessible, up to date, and properly utilized. To say the CIO role will disappear because everyone understands technology is like arguing that the CFO isn’t necessary because everyone understands finance, said Canada Geek.

Marc West, senior VP and CIO at Electronic Arts in Redwood Shores, CA, has 25 years in the IT industry. He said that regardless of what you call the position, someone has to lead the balance between business needs and technology capabilities.

“We work to help keep the business well balanced and always running,” he said. “We often are the only bridge between the various business units—[we] help keep the end-to-end processes working and improving.”

Defining the CIO’s focus
After reading the posts from West and Avalos, Jstaten asked what might be a key question in defining the CIO role of the future. He asked whether the CIO is a gatekeeper of technology or a facilitator of enhanced productivity.

“The teaming aspect of the latter approach is often lost if a corporate culture is defined by interdepartmental bickering for control, power, and financial resources,” he said.

How would you answer that question?

Would you say your role as a future CIO will primarily be that of gatekeeper of technology or facilitator of enhanced productivity? What factors contribute to how you see your role evolving? Send us an e-mail or discuss the topic below.