CIO – Is it the pinacle of corporate IT?

The top of the IT hierarchy is the Chief Information Officer (CIO). I always thought my career zenith was to become the CIO of a major corporation, but I’m no longer convinced that it is the top IT slot or that I’d want the role or title. In many companies I see the CIO and all of IT becoming the keeper of the old IT legacy systems no one else will support. In fact I frequently observe the business going around the CIO and IT. At IBM, we now have non-IT execs coming directly to IBM without anyone from IT. My goal remains to help companies forge their future and not shovel coal into the old steam boiler. While the shift away from IT involvement is not 100%, it is real danger for IT departments if they don’t change.

First, technology is MORE important than ever. No significant business can function without it – period. Second, companies are spending more on IT every day. Third, IT is often not called IT, but companies can’t live without technology and they probably will not let the IT department run it (at least initially – spoiler alert!). Fourth, no one is business can afford to be ignorant of technology and more and more, business leaders are truly IT savvy.  Gone are days of execs having their admins’ print their e-mail, carry it home in a briefcase, then red pen it at night and have the admin respond in the morning.

At the same time, Non-IT execs, Line of Business Execs (LOB Execs), are now able to purchase the systems they require for their business function often in isolation or near isolation from the IT department by procuring SaaS solutions. The LOB even gets modern, mobile, automatic upgraded system. After all, why does the LOB need a giant monstrous ERP system when all the LOB exec wants to do is implement a system to call on my customers, procure some materials, manage my employees, etc. Without IT, LOB can go set up the system and all they need is minimal data to get going. Then the LOB can pay for as much or as little service as the LOB needs. The LOB has a 1:1 relationship between the cost of the service and the outcome of the service. The Hardware, Software, Support, and all upgrades are included, too. If the LOB doesn’t like the result, they drop the service.

Unfortunately this is not reality for very long as IT systems do not work in isolation, even if they are initiated in isolation. Eventually, the CRM system will need to understand the client orders and annual spend. Eventually, the Procurement system will need to tie to the finance system. Eventually, the HR system will need to tie to payroll, finance, security, etc. because people work everywhere in the business. Eventually, the C-level execs like the CEO, COO, and CFO will want to see the big picture across the business and if every system is in isolation, it is going to be very difficult to get the big picture.

Clearly, IT skills are required. So why is the CIO not in the discussion? Why is IT so often considered difficult to work with, a barrier, and a failure to the business? Unfortunately, most IT professionals start their answers with “NO”, why you can not get the request done, or why it will harm the system. IT professionals seem to only perceive the risk to IT and not to the business and even when they do perceive the risk, they don’t communicate to the business in terms the business can understand. Established businesses, both IT and business, often miss the opportunity that new technologies, new capabilities, and changing business environments present. Failing to understand the risk of not changing, not seeing the intersection of business and technology, lets companies like AirBnB, Uber, and Amazon take over markets that were considered unassailable. Seriously, why didn’t the cabs have a mobile app first? Doesn’t it make you laugh now when you see the “download our mobile app” tattooed on the back of every cab.

Start by realizing that the IT department does not have a lock and ownership of all the technology assets of the company. You might, but it will just make others like LOB execs want to go around you given that technology is required for any and every business function. Become an enabler of the business with technology even if it means consolidating, eliminating, or re-implementing the older systems to enable the newer capabilities. I recognize that this is difficult. Often those systems were built on your labor, sweat, and blood. You can’t keep stacking pieces on top of weak foundation. You have to get the business to partner with you so you can jointly move the company forward.

paceseter graphicThere are some very practical ideas in 2011 CIO study from IBM that you might take to heart. Even better, take a look at what happens when the business and IT come together around implementing Cloud, Analytics, Mobile, Social and Security (CAMSS) is series of reports from the IBM Center for Applied Insights. The best companies, pace setters, continue to win in their markets. Can you help your company become a pace setter?

Maybe I am still interested in being a CIO, but not the Chief of the NO team. If I could be the CIO who could enable the business with technology, it wouldn’t be bad job. If I could make my company a pace setter that would definitely be a cool job.