The end of the CIO as we know it -- and IT feels fine

Fifteen years after it became a top-level job, the CIO notion no longer makes sense in the emerging post-IT world

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How the CIO role should evolve
As I said, the CIO job has only a 15-year history, and I believe it is a transitional executive role. Just as companies no longer have an electricity department, they may no longer need an IT department. So what is a CIO good for, if anything? The answer depends on what the company needs, and that's the key to the future of the CIO.

In most cases, forget about being equal to the CFO, sales chief, or COO in the CEO's eyes. Look instead to the key supporting roles that have less stature but are critical to the company: HR, legal, risk, and strategy. When done well, these roles mix strategic leadership with policy-oriented management and only the minimally necessary amount of operations. HR, for example, doesn't manage employees, but it helps managers do it better through policies, counseling, and crisis management. The risk officer doesn't manage security directly, but helps the company assess risks, prioritize prevention and remediation, and manage crises.

In many organizations, the CIO role should evolve to a similar mix, using its broad oversight to identify areas of innovation within and across individual departments, as well as establish standards for technical integration and information exchange -- not just at bits level but at a semantic level. What we tend to think of IT -- purchasing, specifying, managing the data center, networks, support, enterprise applications, and (decreasingly) users' devices -- should be spun out into a facilities-like department. In other words, forget being an equal to the CFO, sales chief, or COO; instead, be one of the key "lubricating" leaders.

Perhaps this operational IT -- the reborn MIS department -- reports to whatever the CIO is renamed, or perhaps it stays separate so that the CIO isn't pulled into operational issues constantly. Some organizations separate the chief risk officer from the security operations for the same reason, while others combine them -- that's a decision for each company to make. The same goes for where MIS belongs.

By letting go of the ambition to be just as important and powerful as the COO, CFO, or sales chief, CIOs might actually find a better role for themselves and for their companies. Current CIOs who just want to manage operations can manage the reborn MIS departments, while those who want to be strategic can do so as supportive partners to the rest of the company.

Other CIOs -- those whose companies are essentally about digital assets and services -- should look to become the equivalent of the COO, a role that manages the operations of the business-defining physical processes and therefore is deeply intertwined with the business strategy. There, operations is not a key supporting function but the key function, period.

In a nutshell, there are three possible archetypes for today's CIOs in a post-IT environment:

  • The CIO (recast as a CTO) is more of a policy adviser around the use of technology than technocrat, more akin to a chief risk officer, HR director, or chief legal officer.
  • The CIO is the digital COO orchestrating processes and flows as a traditional COO does in a manufacturing environment.
  • The CIO (recast as the MIS manager) owns the technology platforms as both a sourcing manager and integration specialist, working as an infrastructure expert with CMOs and other business executives.

However the role changes, it should be clear that when a whole profession keeps trying to find a purpose for itself, that's a red flag indicating it's not needed. But smart, strategic technologists and information experts will always be in demand.

This article, "The end of the CIO as we know it -- and IT feels fine," was originally published at Read more of Galen Gruman's Smart User blog. For the latest business technology news, follow on Twitter.

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