Why CIOs should never be revolutionary

Stewardship, strategy, and technology leadership are the only meaningful ways to move your IT organization forward

According to a nearly incoherent Deloitte press release, the role of CIO is "shifting from steward to strategist or revolutionary."

Before explaining why the press release is well worth taking the time to ignore, an observation: If you want to ensure your understanding of a situation remains superficial, conduct a survey. It will reveal the distribution pattern of beliefs. Whether those beliefs are based on anything worth sharing is an entirely different matter.

[ Also on InfoWorld.com: Get Bob Lewis's continuing IT management wisdom in his Advice Line blog and newsletter. | Bob Lewis outlines the IT survival guide for uncertain times. ]

And no, I don't believe in crowdsourcing. I believe in an older wisdom, stated succinctly by the geniuses at Despair.com: "None of us is as dumb as all of us."

As for the survey's "revolutionary CIO" assertions, the reality is that competent CIOs have always been both stewards and strategists. And to be "revolutionary," successful CIOs will simply need to continue to provide the same technology leadership they've been offering all along.

The revolutionary CIO: A matter of perspective

Confession time: I wasn't aware of the Deloitte survey until I read Dan Tynan's InfoWorld TechWatch coverage. Subsequently, I took the time to familiarize myself with its pointlessness.

Here's a direct quote:

According to the poll, 45 percent of nearly 1,000 IT executives surveyed say their own CIO is viewed as a steward while another 45 percent say their CIO is a strategist. The remaining 10 percent claim their CIO is a revolutionary ...

The first question that comes to mind: Who exactly did Deloitte survey? And the second: Why are their opinions on this subject worth listening to?

This might seem minor, but it isn't. It's foundational.

The quote says, "their own CIO is viewed as ... ." Did Deloitte survey the sort of annoying people who refer to themselves in the third person? Is Deloitte including as "IT executives" people who report to the CIO -- people I'd describe as middle managers? Did it survey companies organized in such a way that people with CIO titles report to higher-level technology executives with some other exalted title?

Presumably, what's going on here is that the CIO's direct reports are describing their interpretation of how the company's top non-IT executives view the situation. It's hearsay testimony, which is, as everyone who has ever watched a lawyer show on television knows, inadmissible in court.

Why the revolutionary CIO is a terrible idea

Another quote worth dissecting is the following:

A majority (60 percent) of survey respondents think IT should facilitate growth and productivity -- nearly twice as many respondents that believe IT needs to be a competitive advantage (36 percent) for their company.

Other than by providing or enabling competitive advantages, how can IT facilitate growth? And isn't improved productivity, resulting in lower costs, a competitive advantage?

Now we've hit the crux of the matter. What Deloitte means by "revolutionary" is that, in its words, "The CIO will increasingly have the ability to actually change how business is conducted."

Let's get serious about organizational dynamics. Imagine you're the head of, say, global supply chain or maybe sales and marketing. Are you really going to allow the CIO to change how your operation runs?

Ignore, for the moment, the turf-protecting, highly siloed dynamics that characterize most organizations, and focus solely on the is-this-a-good-idea dimension of the proposition. Unless you think the CIO is going to have a better handle on how every part of the company should run than the executive in charge, this is a seriously terrible recommendation.

The steward and the strategist

But perhaps what's really being said isn't about the CIO as an individual, but as a proxy for IT as a whole. Does that change anything? Not in the slightest. If the CEO thinks anyone in IT knows how to run a chunk of the business better than the person currently responsible for it, the proper response isn't to authorize IT to change how business is conducted. It's to demote the manager or executive currently responsible, promoting the IT expert as their replacement.

What should happen is less dramatic. It's something we've talked about in this space on several occasions. IT's role really is shifting, only it isn't shifting toward being revolutionary. It is shifting from providing software that meets requirements to collaborating with those responsible for various parts of the enterprise, in an attempt to support and improve how they conduct business.

Here is where we see that Deloitte has in fact accomplished something with this survey. Not content with a false dichotomy, Deloitte has established a false trichotomy. That takes some imagination.

A false dichotomy takes two entirely compatible ideas and pretends they're mutually exclusive alternatives. The old nature/nurture controversy is an example.

Deloitte's proposition is a false trichotomy because, to be successful, CIOs have always had to be both steward and strategist, and that isn't going to change anytime soon. As for revolutionary, as we've seen it's a terrible idea, at least as defined by Deloitte, but that doesn't make it mutually exclusive with the other two roles.

CIOs don't get to stop being stewards if they want to be strategists. Quite the opposite -- if they aren't good stewards, they won't be invited to the strategy table. Guideline No. 7 of the KJR manifesto continues to be true: Before you can be strategic, you have to be competent.

What "revolutionary CIO" should really mean

In the world of business, what "revolutionary" ought to mean is someone who identifies new and potentially lucrative business opportunities, as well as who provides the drive to make them happen -- in other words, a strategist.

SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) analysis is a venerable approach to strategic planning. The opportunities-and-threats part comes down to identifying developments in the outside world that could have a significant impact on the company's business model.

In the context of information technology, CIOs have always been responsible for this, and if it makes them revolutionaries, this is nothing new -- except, perhaps, to a different breed of CIO: the ones for whom the acronym stands for "career is over."

This story, "Why CIOs should never be revolutionary," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Bob Lewis's Advice Line blog on InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

How to choose a low-code development platform