Whilst researching an article recently I came across a headline from BusinessWeek magazine declaring “Management’s Newest Star: Meet the Chief Information Officer.” The headline was from 1986, which is about the time the CIO title first started to be used. Now, as well as providing a reminder that the CIO role is still relatively new, particularly when compared to the CEO, COO, CFO et al, the headline also prompts some challenging questions about how the role has developed and what the future holds.
The provenance of the CIO title and the exact timing of its introduction are a little unclear. However, what is certain is that the creation of the role was a reflection that technology was becoming more sophisticated and could do a lot more than just electronic data processing. So by the mid-1980s, and with IT becoming more strategic, businesses realised they needed to create a more senior IT leadership role that sat in the C-suite.
Sound familiar? Today we are seeing technology moving centre stage within every organisation, sitting at the forefront of the customer experience and interaction, driving innovation in products and services, enabling new business models and underpinning business transformation. IT is both fundamental and strategic.
Back in 1986 the future seemed to be very bright for the CIO role. Yet here we are less than 30 years later and with a similarly seismic shift in the importance of IT and we frequently see headlines about the CIO role disappearing; CMOs spending more than CIOs, and the emergence of the Chief Digital Officer role with a remit of leading digital transformation.
So what happened to the new star of the C-suite? How did the CIO role go from being heralded as a key part of the executive team to one that has its importance, remit and even its very existence regularly questioned?
We don’t have to look far to answer these questions; CIOs themselves must shoulder a large part of the blame for their failure to capitalise on the platform they were given when the role was first created.
Since the 1980s, there have been many structural changes in IT; from mainframe to PCs, then client-server followed by the web and most recently consumerisation, cloud, mobile and social media. Each shift has been gradually moving IT from a highly specialised and closed discipline focused on back-office and support systems to one that is more far more accessible to non-technical staff who understand how technology can be applied at the front-end of the business to generate competitive advantage.
Unfortunately too many CIOs and IT departments got left behind at various points along this journey, stuck in the detail of technology with a skillset and experience that lagged behind what their organisations needed. During the earlier structural changes to PCs and client-server this was less obvious although the cracks were beginning to show as CIOs and IT functions struggled to adjust to their new role as an internal service provider. But with the evolution of the web and more recent developments such as the cloud, the gap between what the CIO and the IT function does and what the organisation needs has widened and become more obvious. And it is this gap that is now being filled by the CMO, shadow IT functions and the CDO role.
Can the CIO role regain its reputation as the star of the C-suite? There is much to do; skills such as influencing and collaboration need to become core-competencies, experience of working in other areas of the business ideally with P&L responsibility is becoming essential and the ability to shape and drive business transformation is a key requirement.
Fortunately there are some role models; take a look at the CIO 100 and you will see many examples of CIOs who are very much a key part of the leadership team and leading the transformation of their organisations. But these are the top CIOs, representing a small proportion of the overall CIO population. The CIO role can once again become the star of the C-suite if they become the norm rather than the exception.