Why Are CIOs Losing Credibility in the Information Age?

Loraine Lawson
Slide Show

Today’s CIO: More Collaboration and Influence, But Less Control

It’s time to add responsibility and accountability to information management, and the CIO is just the person to do it, argues Deborah H. Juhnke in a recent Harvard Business Review blog post, “Why Can’t a CIO Be More Like a CFO.”

Her point hearkens back to the original distinction between CIOs and CTOs, when the idea was that the CIO would oversee information, a more strategic role than chief technology officer.

“CIO's have never broadly achieved their destiny,” Juhnke states. “They have remained, instead, CTO's. I submit they are—or should be—something different.”

Okay, fair enough. This article is, after all, part of the series, “Reinventing Corporate IT,” by Harvard Business Review. And after reading the series, it’s obvious something needs to change because CIOs are in serious trouble. A recent piece in the series, “The CIO in Crisis: What You Told Us,” points out that corporate leadership has lost faith in the CIO as a strategic partner. Instead, they see IT as a commodity that can just as easily be acquired from third-party service providers. The really frightening revelation from this piece is that CIOs don’t see it, but CEOs do, and they’re looking at alternatives, “such as chief digital officers, or creating ‘not-so-shadow’ IT organizations under the CMO.”

I don’t have a problem with the theory that CIOs should focus more on information rather than technology. Certainly, CIOs could, and perhaps should, be leading on all information management, from Big Data to better business analytics. After all, information is becoming a source of strategic differentiation and revenue growth. Juhnke’s right, somebody needs to be in charge of it.

But what I, and some of her readers, find problematic is the idea that CIOs should emulate the CFOs in how they achieve this.

Her argument is fairly straightforward:

  • Information is proliferating.
  • There are risks and costs incurred by this growth in information, in terms of potential lawsuits, burgeoning storage costs and regulatory compliance. The digital landfill “has been a money pit for corporations and a gold mine, in my experience, for plaintiffs' counsel and regulatory investigators, leading to average per case discovery costs ranging from $621,000 to more than $9 million,” she writes.
  • The problem is caused by our laisser-faire approach to computer education—little guidance, hands-off, freedom to make decisions—and this leads to lower productivity absent a system for accountability.
  • Therefore, CIOs need to step up and take control—in a very, no-nonsense, financial kind of way.

“Someone needs to take control, and CIO's are in an ideal position to mandate the structure, direction, resources, and accountability necessary to achieve coherent governance of information assets,” she writes. “The time is ripe for CIOs to take a page from the CFOs' playbook to ensure both accountability and responsibility for information creation.”

And if it’s too intimidating, borrow a page from zero-based budgeting, which she calls “Zero-Based Information Governance."

Juhnke is a certified records manager, so that’s her focus. I’m sure she’s more aware than most of us about the inherent risks of ungoverned and unmanaged data. I don’t think anyone would say governance isn’t needed.

But the idea that CIOs can just “think like a parent,” as she states, and take charge strikes me as unfair to CIOs, especially given the series’ broader questions about the CIO’s loss of strategic importance and who’s to blame.

If CEOs are really supporting “shadow IT” projects to the point of adding a “chief digital officer” or worse, then how will they react to a heavy-handed CIO who suddenly decides it’s his job to manage all information and its life cycle? I suspect the CEO won’t blink twice before firing that CIO, particularly if the CIO’s dictates fall out of line with the business needs.

What’s more, how is the CIO to manage information when departments like marketing are both creating and storing it outside the enterprise firewall?

Honestly, upon reading the series, it strikes me that CIOs can’t win in some ways. They’ve been relegated to technology roles and information isn’t entirely under their control and likely never will be.

And yet—there are CIOs who succeed in re-defining their role as chief information officer. When I read about CIOs who successfully transform how information is used within an organization, here’s what I’ve noticed:

  • They’re leaders, not followers. In this way, they might be more like a CFO than a CTO, because they step up with a plan and a vision. Except …
  • They’re successful collaborators. Time and time again, whenever you read about a truly transformative data management or analytics project, the CIO focused more on shepherding the process than controlling it. 

This to me is a major difference between CFOs and CIOs—CFOs are dealing with a limited resource over which they have nearly complete control: money. CIOs are dealing with a potentially unlimited resource that’s cheap to acquire, expensive to maintain and almost never under their entire control: data.

The series’ broader question is about the CIO’s role and who’s to blame—the business leaders who “don’t get it” or the IT department that continues to “act like the smartest guy in the room” without delivering business value.

Personally, I’m partial to Donald Marchand and Joe Peppard’s argument that IT—and I would extend that to information management—really should be everyone’s responsibility:

“The question is, will problems with IT go away, particularly the challenges around delivering business value? Of course not! Why? Because the problems with enterprise IT have generally nothing to do with IT. They never have!”

That is often true, especially when it comes to integration and data.

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