Is the CIO's prestige really slipping?

New research shows that very few have a seat at the table among the corporate board of directors

Ephraim Schwartz’s recent InfoWorld column “Are CIOs Headed for Extinction?” got me good and riled up, ready to fire back a rebuttal, until I cooled off and realized he’s kinda right, but for the wrong reasons. He essentially said CIOs are being shunted aside by CFOs, whereas I believe it’s the other top business executives, not CFOs, who are driving the train when it comes to decisions about technology investments.

The business world is all about information technology these days, so IT is simply no longer the exclusive domain of the CIO. In my opinion, CIOs who can transform themselves into broader business leaders while overseeing increasingly virtual IT empires will survive, leaving the tech-type, caretaker CIOs to oversee shrinking, captive IT departments.

In closed-door sessions, CIOs often ask one another: “Do we have a seat at the table?” or “How do we get a seat at the table?” In other words, how do they get the other top execs to care what they think? How do they get a say in corporate strategy? No matter how often CIOs dismiss this question as a time-waster, it keeps popping back up.

Now comes new research claiming CIOs definitely don’t have a seat at the biggest table of all -- the corporate board of directors. In a new survey of corporate board membership, Burson-Marsteller is claiming that only 8 percent of Fortune Global 500 companies have board members who are current or former CIOs. And only 3 percent of those companies have CEOs or COOs with previous experience as CIOs.

While I’m always wary of PR firm research methods (I come from New England where the ski resort marketing people would put the snowfall measuring stick in horizontally), this sounds about right. Sales and finance, not IT, have been the traditional spawning grounds of the corporate elite, with the occasional marketing whiz thrown in for good measure.

So does this mean there’s a glass ceiling for CIOs and IT managers? Absolutely not. It will just take a little more time before the steady rise of CIOs to the top becomes measurable. Today’s savvy CIOs are moving into CEO or COO roles via a connecting stint in non-IT management -- not straight from IT. For example, Kevin Turner, who was CIO of Wal-Mart, then CEO of Sam’s Club, is now COO of Microsoft. There is also MCI CEO Michael Capellas, who was Compaq’s CIO, and Walgreen’s CEO David Bernauer, previously CIO. Or Williams-Sonoma COO Vivian Stephenson, previously CIO.

In fact, the Burson-Marsteller study that showed the number of CIOs moving into top positions, although small, is still up significantly from 2003 -- and the numbers are even higher for Chinese and Indian companies. The study also says more than 60 percent of the surveyed companies include CIOs in their top management teams and mention them in their annual reports. So get ready for a new generation of CIOs to take their seat at the top table -- it just won’t show up in the numbers until after the fact.