It's the end of the CIO as we know it

Credit: goodmani via Flickr

The role of the Chief Information Officer is changing as fast as the IT landscape. Between BYOD, the tidal wave of big data metrics, the shift to the cloud, cost pressures, and any of the other thousand dozens of things that have shifted in IT over the last decade, the CIO's job is no longer so cut-and-dried. 

Last night, I sat in on a debate between Narinder Singh, Chief Strategy Officer of cloud service provider Appirio (and Jay-Z enthusiast - he quoted the rapper several times during the evening), and R. Ray Wang, Principal Analyst and CEO of Constellation Research, as they discussed the changing nature of the C-Suite  in general and the CIO in particular with moderator Chris Preimesberger, editor of eWeek. 

Topics included the role of the Chief Digital Officer (CDO), or lack thereof, and the speed by which technology and business models change in the modern market. But the most interesting conversational thread from the evening was the discussion of the evolution of the CIO role.

Mainly, Wang and Singh agreed with each other, especially when it came to the fact that the modern CIO has to wear many hats. Wang laid out his long-held theory that the "I" in "CIO" can actually stand for four different things besides "Information": Intelligence, Integration, Innovation, and Infrastructure. Whether it's one person with the title handling all four jobs, or some other organizational arrangement whereby a CIO is reinforced with specialists, that office is responsible for all of the above. 

The problem -- and the main point of contention in the debate -- is that the CIO's role is often seen as operational, while the C-Suite is for strategic players. In other words, the traditional CIO is pigeonholed as providing a commodity, while three of Wang's four CIO roles ideally provide actual business value. Intelligence, in particular, is vital in the age of big data. 

That pigeonholing is a real issue --Wang says that Constellation Research is finding that as many as 52% of CIOs are now reporting to the Chief Financial Officer (CFO), only reinforcing their role as internal service providers. This issue is exacerbated by the fact that larger organizations with revenue in the billions would rather pay one infrastructure generalist one executive salary and keep the lights on, rather than go outside of its rigid structure and embrace the fragmentation of the role. 

This is unfortunate, as the time for IT to become a strategic asset beyond mere infrastructure has never been better, the debaters agreed. From the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) to the sales organization and beyond, the workers outside of IT's walled borders are embracing the new generation of cloud applications, and they're completely transforming the way they do business. 

Salesforce, Microsoft Dynamics, and the like provide a unprecedented access to metrics, analytics, and raw data. But while all that data is providing a rush, it's going to be up to the CIO's office to help them separate the wheat from the chaff. In other words, the CMO may generate mountains of data, but the CIO's real value is going to be in processing it, Singh says, and the enterprises that thrive are the ones that encourage the two offices to work together.

As always, it really comes down to culture. Wang, who called the entire Board of Directors system into question, noted that any organization has two choices. You can punish those in IT, marketing, or sales who try to reach across the aisle and encourage more competition between them, or else encourage them to share what they know. 

Towards the evening's end, Singh explained that his ideal C-Suite would include a Chief Infrastructure Officer who reported to the CFO and focused on the day-to-day stuff, while an executive-level Chief Innovation Officer (or whatever you'd like to call the role) was freed up to focus on the actual delivery of business value. 

But the message is clear: Business as usual for the traditional CIO isn't good enough anymore. 

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