The CIO's days may be numbered

Technology is no longer a weird 'other' thing, and it should be fully integrated into your business management

The CIO's days may be numbered

For the last decade, CIOs and the analysts and press that write about them, have been trying to figure out how to make the role more strategic. They've proposed all sorts of new hats for the CIO, from chief innovation officer to chief digital officer. They go on endlessly about how CIOs need to be more than technology infrastructure managers and fret about the rise of the increasingly savvy business managers such as chief marketing officers.

I have an idea: Get rid of the CIO. The role has been around for only about 25 years, and for nearly half of it, its practitioners have been trying to figure out what they should be when they group up. That suggests strongly that the role is not needed.

You don't hear such long-term existential crises from other corporate chieftains. There are lots of variations of COOs, CFOs, and HR directors -- such variation is a hallmark of the CIO role as well -- but you don't hear them constantly fret about their relevance. They know what value they bring and are confident in that value. CIOs, not so much.

Don't get me wrong: I like CIOs. I've met dozens of smart, engaging ones who bring real value to their organizations. They would do so no matter what role was on their business card. But the notion of a CIO seems outdated today.

The CIO started as the technology deployment and operations manager -- what started as Data Processing, then renamed Information Technology (IT) -- in finance departments at a time when the first computers were adopted in the 1960s through 1980s to manage corporate finances. That's why so many still report to the CFO.

Only later, beginning in the 1990s did the modern notion of the CIO arise: the person who deployed and managed all the digital information systems, from word processing to payroll to order managements to sales and finance. Sometimes, telecom was included, sometimes not. Network and computer infrastructure was definitely included, and later security and compliance became big roles for the digital systems under the CIO's ownership.

Think about it: If you removed the technology angle, that same set of descriptions would apply to the COO (chief operations officer) or head of manufacturing (for companies that make stuff themselves). When technology was new and different, its deployment and operational managers needed skills that existing operational managers like CFOs and COOs didn't have. Today, not much is done in corporations that doesn't involve computer technology. So why have a separate role to manage it?

If your COO manages nontechnical operations, it makes sense to move the CIO function into the COO role. Remember -- when electricity was new, companies had Departments of Electricity, but as reliable grids became the norm, that role largely went away, with facilities or purchasing handling the provider relationship. (If you manage a data center, you likely have that power provider at least partially managed in IT because of how much power data centers use.)

If you have only a CIO to manage your operations, perhaps because they are all digital (such as in a financial services company), then your CIO is really your COO and probably should be called one.

Some people argue, vaguely, that the CIO should be about the information itself, not the systems that store and process it. That's unlikely because every business unit is about information on whatever its specialty. That's why marketing has become the center of so much technology today -- technology manages, interprets, and acts on the information about the customers that marketing is charged with attracting and exploiting.

Every business unit should have its own CIO-like manager, if the role were to become narrowly defined to be about the information itself. People who understand the information and whose personal success is tied to it should manage it. The last thing a company needs is a CIO who competes with the various business units over that information. Of course, a coordination role makes sense since information flows among business units and is subject to external factors like regulations. But in most cases that person could and should be part of the COO's group.

Other people argue that CIOs should be about innovation, as if it's separate from the rest of the company's operations and strategy. It's not. Of course, you should have people charged with exploring and investigating innovations, but most should be connected to actual business units, where the needs and opportunities exist. A center of excellence that coordinates and cross-pollinates those people makes sense, but you don't need a CIO to have such a center of excellence.

Still others say the CIO should become the chief digital officer, a nonsense term in today's digital era. Most things are now digital, and "digital" should not be removed from the workaday functions in your company. Imagine having a chief physical officer. A CDO is just as dumb.

None of this means that the information skills -- analysis, management, interpretation, and application -- that many in IT bring to the table are not needed. To the contrary, they're essential. But they're now part and parcel of the business, not a separate discipline to be managed as "other."

Your company should have developers, application and cloud service managers, computer technicians, user support technicians, network engineers, database designers, information and enterprise architects, data center managers (for what's not in the cloud), data scientists, infrastructure experts, and all of that. But most belong with the rest of the company's operations, not in a parallel technology-based operations group as is common today.

The great CIOs will become great COOs. Those who are really IT operations directors will remain valuable in that role, reporting to the COO.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.