Are CIOs Suited for Process Improvement?

Ann All

I've written before about IT's role in process improvement, concluding that while some business executives believe they are better positioned to lead improvement initiatives, it makes more sense for IT to assume that role, thanks to its high-level organizational view, technology expertise and familiarity with process modeling and analysis.


Some folks think the CIO position will split into two separate roles: one devoted to process improvement and the other to information technology. In an interview from late 2006, Philip Lay of TCG Advisors told me:

It reflects reality in terms of the demands for two different types of skillset. In other words, it was probably unrealistic in the first place to expect one person to manage both aspects.

Michael Cusumano, a management professor in MIT's Sloan School and author of several books on the software industry, apparently suggested during the recent MIT Sloan CIO Symposium that a CIO is not the right person to lead process improvement efforts.


InformationWeek blogger Tom Soat reports this exchange with Tom Malone, another Sloan School professor and author of "The Future Of Work":

Malone: "One of the most interesting opportunities for the CIO today is to move from a technology architect to a process architect."


Cusumano: "I would not trust the CIO to re-architect the organization."


Malone: "Does it depend on the who the CIO is?"


Cusumano: "No, I don't think it does."

So does Cusumano think CIOs are inherently not suited for a process-improvement role? Or, like Lay, does he see a need for a devoted chief process improvement officer (who may or may not have been a CIO in a previous life)? It isn't clear.


To end on a troubling note, CIOs tend to focus more on nuts-and-bolts technology issues when asked about their expectations for IT, as opposed to business executive who stress items like customer relationships, entering new markets and, yes, process improvement, according to a Gartner Executive Programs survey from 2oo7.


Many CIOs can't seem to see the business forest because they're focused on the technology trees. CEOs don't seem to realize that you can't get trees or a forest without first planting some seeds. Getting them together seems as challenging as building a house from raw timber.

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Jun 4, 2008 8:06 AM Julio Valencia Julio Valencia  says:
Ann:I agree with your comment that CIOs are better positioned to lead improvement initiatives, it makes more sense for IT to assume that role, thanks to its high-level organizational view, technology expertise and familiarity with process modeling and analysis.If the CIO has the combination of Information technology and business skills, he or she should be able to lead process improvements projects better than a CEO would do, but office politics makes it more difficult to do it. This is not a job to be done by the CIO alone if he or she is not part of the normal decision-making process, a process improvement leadership team is necessary, but as you said IT practitioners (CIOs) have the expertise in modeling and optimizing IT related processes, there is a small leap from here to improve other business processes.One advantage is that a CIO should be able to visualize the interaction of the different areas among them and with IT, then, from here, the CIO could automate redundant decisions, and continue with process improvements. I believe that with todays business environment is almost impossible for a CIO to be devoted to information technology only. ThanksJV Reply
Jun 4, 2008 11:16 AM donna donna  says:
I have grown into this person.....what title would you give this position? It requires some tech skills, business process knowledge, good analytical skills, great people skills, and the ability to challenge people to think differently.this position must have significant clout, otherwise you will just be swimming upstream when you try to do anything. Reply
Jun 4, 2008 5:11 PM Mark Cummuta Mark Cummuta  says:
I disagree with Cusumano and agree with Donna's comment - it is possible that people can grow into this process-oriented role. I wouldn't even call it a dual role. I also disagree with Cusumano that CIOs can't be this person. In fact, I know numerous CIOs with a business-first style, just as I have been told my own style of CIO leadership is an ideal blend of process-centric, customer-focused business solutions, and technology supporting business experience.I don't know where Mr.Cusumano is getting his data, but he needs to spend time with a broader circle of CIOs before he says NONE of us can do a job.Mark Cummuta Reply
Jun 5, 2008 2:40 PM P. Grant Rule P. Grant Rule  says:
The fact that everyone so far has used the term 'process improvement' instead of the more outcome-focused term 'performance improvement' speaks volumes. While I agree that many CIOs can, and should, have much to contribute to the process of improving performance (in a variety of dimensions), even the most business-oriented CIO cannot achieve and sustain performance improvement on their own. It necessitates team work. Which is why we talk about establishing a 'leading coalition' of senior managers (in which the CIO must be a key player) headed by the CEO, all of whom agree to commit and play their part. I'm afraid it still seems to be the case that many if not most improvement initiatives fail, and they fail largely because of lack of commitment from the senior-most management team.Performance improvement is not something you do separately from normal day-to-day 'business as usual'. It has to become an embedded part of the culture, engaging everyone from the CEO to the shop floor in making many small changes, all designed to progress the organisation in their agreed 'True North direction' toward the desired outcome, as envisioned and communicated by the leading coalition.A key problem for most CIOs is that: (1) they do not have a position on the company board; and/or (2) their colleagues in the CEO's management team see them as 'technies' and do not treat them as if they have other serious business skills. Worse, many CIOs reinforce this image by too great a focus on 'tin boxes and wires'. Having said all the above, I believe that the CIO can be the person in pole position to create the climate for change, and play a key role in helping the CEO establish the 'burning platform' that will encourage other management team members to become part of the coalition leading performance improvement. But it ain't easy.P. Grant RuleManaging Director, Software Measurement Services Ltd. www.measuresw.com Reply
Jun 5, 2008 7:28 PM Avgoustinos Constantinides Avgoustinos Constantinides  says:
Today is a must for all businesses to be updated in regards with technology. Basically, if a business is not updated with technology, is losing business. In my opinion this is the role of a CIO. He has to be able to have a broad knowledge of technology, business processes and HR. Without these skills, a CIO will not be able to "help" the business to utilize the advantages of technology. However, one person is impossible to have full knowledge of IT, business and HR and i believe it is good for a CIO to have on the whole knowledge about all this matter and be able to cooperate with the appropriate departments in the company in order to get the right results.So, yes, i believe it can be a job of one person if this person has VERY GOOD interpersonal and communication skills and good IT background.Avgoustinos ConstantinidesAndreas Neocleous & Co LLC Reply

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