Is the Dedicated CIO an Anachronism?

Ann All
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There's no question the CIO role is changing. Most folks seem to agree on the importance of CIOs whose expertise extends to the broader business, not just technology. In a post I wrote earlier this year, I mentioned several companies where the CIO did stints in business units such as sales, marketing and product management, with the aim of boosting his/her business smarts and becoming a more effective CIO.


It seems to have worked well at companies like W.W. Grainger, where former CIO Jim Ryan is now CEO and president. The man appointed to succeed Ryan as CIO, Tim Ferrarell, "held various positions in product management, marketing and business planning before he shifted gears toward IT in 2001" and became senior vice president of enterprise systems, according to his corporate bio. Ferrarell has been CIO since 2007.


As the lines between technology and business continue to blur, perhaps we can expect to see more business folks moving into technology positions and more technology folks moving into business positions. Maybe we'll all end up looking a lot more like the IT-business hybrids we've been hearing are in increasingly hot demand.


Writing for silicon.com, executive recruiter Tim Cook hints that new roles combining key business functions could be on the horizon for "CIOs who are capable of doing more." (Those are his words. Maybe I'm interpreting them in a way Cook didn't intend, but I sense an implication that more companies will begin to expect their CIOs to perform duties outside the traditional technology realm.) He identifies shared services, the supply chain and broader operations as "natural areas to be added to the CIO's remit."


Cook cites several European companies where CIOs have made this kind of a shift. At German supermarket chain Edeka, for example, the CIO also leads logistics. Former Boston Consulting Group consultant Edeltraud Leibrock has been appointed to a newly created role of CIO and COO at Germany's KfW Bank. Spanish online and catalog retailer Venca's new IT director is also responsible for the company's online strategy.


As Cook writes, the IT function is becoming "less about running infrastructure and data systems well, and more about IT procurement, vendor management, business-process change and information security."


This kind of shift may lead companies to start seeing the CIO role as more strategic than it has been in the past, which would certainly be a positive development. A side effect, that may or may not be so positive for some CIOs: The days of a role dedicated solely to technology strategy appear to be waning. This could make it more difficult to create and maintain a cohesive technology strategy. (Conversely, maybe a CIO responsible for at least one other major business function will enjoy more credibility with his/her colleagues, which could make it easier to win support for and compliance with a holistic technology strategy.)


It also means companies may be seeking a possibly more elusive blend of business and technology chops, preferably one that aligns with their own business models. Perhaps this need is driving another trend Cook mentions in his silicon.com piece: a "try before they buy" approach to CIO recruitment, with companies using short-term contracts for IT leaders, with plans to move the right candidates into permanent positions. Cook sees this as a positive step, especially for internal candidates, who he writes are "now more likely to be benchmarked against external talent when a new role is being filled."

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