Credit: Daniel Allan
It's a painful irony: As technology permeates the workplace, the CIO is becoming less relevant. I predict the position's stature will further decrease in the coming years for many -- though not all -- companies.
I've been watching CIOs try to reinvent themseves for most of the last decade, and I've heard all sorts of new roles for the CIO proposed: chief innovation officer, chief process officer, chief strategy officer, chief digital officer, chief integration office, even chief information officer (as opposed to chief technology manager, which is what most CIOs actually are). I've watched CIOs chafe about reporting to the CFO a decade ago to seeking a "seat at the table" (meaning being treated like COOs, sales chiefs, and CFOs in CEOs' eyes) half a decade ago to now seeking to be "more strategic."
CIOs don't want to be the digital version of the head of facilities or the technology purchasing manager. Instead, they've been trying to find a big role for themselves for much of the last decade. They've failed, and there's a reason for that.
The CIO rose under an extraordinary set of circumstances
The CIO job is about 15 years old, created in the aftermath of the Y2K crisis and the simultaneous rise of both ERP and e-commerce in the late 1990s. Before then, we had MIS (management information system) directors who ran the mainframe-era data centers in large companies. They were specialized departments that had little to do with the rest of the company's routine operations, though they were critical to key functions (usually financial).
The Y2K crisis and the ERP and e-commerce pushes made companies realize that technology was fundamentally important to the entire company and needed an elevated position in the corporate hierarchy to do the equivalent of the Manhattan Project or lunar landing: implement massive information systems that had never existed before. Thus was born the CIO.
By the mid-2000s, though, e-commerce and ERP were deployed at most companies, and Y2K was a distant memory. The CIO role became more about maintaining and operating those systems, and some CIOs began to miss the heady days of figuring out the brave new world. Many more were happy to get back to an operational role, managing IT as they had MIS, though it was now more complex because PCs were on nearly every desk, networks were widespread, and the amount of data to manage was several orders of magnitudes greater than it had been pre-Y2K.
After 9/11, CIOs got a boost to their strategic value due to the focus on security, which many CIOs used as a way to assert control or entrench themselves further, whether strategically or operationally, depending on their ambitions. Security became a convenient way to say no, and the cautionary joke about CIOs and their IT departments being Doctor No became common.
Then the financial meltdown hit, and most companies made their CIOs focus on operational efficiency through cost-cutting and automation. As a result, IT was less able to say yes and simultaneously recast it as an operational sink hole that could always be squeezed further.