Not so long ago, common wisdom dictated that IT was the main driver of business success: Either your company was ahead of the curve or it was doomed. Competition was keen as businesses vied for top talent to act as their CIO, commonly thought of as the second most important executive at a company.

Things have changed, and the clout that was once lavished on the CIO position is no longer automatic. In fact, the big question under debate is whether CIOs are even needed today. “Should you fire your CIO?” was actually a session topic at the Burning Questions 2002 conference, a gathering of leading practitioners and management experts sponsored by Harvard Business School Publishing.

TechRepublic reviewed a videotaped copy of the session discussion, during which Clayton Hubner, a Belmont, MA-based consultant and former CIO of Applied Power, predicted that the CIO role would soon be extinct.

“A decade ago, you rarely heard about the CIO role,” Hubner said. “A decade from now, companies’ understanding of how to use information to enhance business effectiveness will be more ubiquitous, and you won’t hear about the CIO anymore.”

What do you think of Hubner’s argument? Read on to find out more about his theory, and then send us an e-mail or post your comments in the discussion below.

Why will CIOs go the way of the dinosaur?
Hubner compared IT management to telephone systems and electricity management, noting that companies don’t require chief telephone officers or chief electricity officers.

“I think it [the CIO position] came on the scene to fill a need,” he explained. “As understanding of how you utilize information to enhance business effectiveness becomes more ubiquitous, it’s a role that’s going to go away.”

However, Hubner said he does believe that the role will take a new shape, with the CIO becoming “an agent provocateur to force this knowledge, understanding, and practice deep within organizations.”

The mutating CIO role
Some argue that the role of the CIO has already begun to shift and change, sometimes splitting into multiple positions as companies expand. Gartner recently predicted that the “primary challenges of the public-sector CIO are organizational rather than technical,” and that through 2006, the success of most public sector CIOs will be “suboptimized, primarily because the CEO will underutilize the position in achieving the enterprise’s business objectives.” The firm asserted that in organizations where the CIO doesn’t participate in setting the policies and business agenda, there would be a significant waste of resources where technology is concerned.

The fact that the Harvard conference topic was “Should you fire your CIO” illustrates that there’s been a significant shift in thinking about the CIO role. How today’s CIOs will evolve may depend on their relationship with their company’s CEO and how involved they become in the setting of organizational policies and goals.