Should CIOs Be Generalists or Specialists?

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I think there may be a new hot dialogue brewing around the CIO role, one along the lines of whether the actual CIO title needs to change to better reflect the role's responsibilities or whether the CIO is the best person to lead process improvement initiatives.


Last week I asked University of Kentucky CIO Vince Kellen whether CIOs would remain generalists, leading business technology initiatives in different industries, or whether we'd start to see more specialization, with CIOs spending bigger chunks of their careers within specific verticals.


Before coming to the University of Kentucky, Kellen served as VP of Information Services for DePaul University. (He's also a consultant with the Cutter Consortium.) His opinion:

Once you're a CIO in a vertical, it's hard to leave that vertical. Your value to the vertical is very important, especially if you're good at the business stuff. You know so much about your industry, you'll be valuable to competitors, too. At the highest levels of executive leadership, you've got to be deeply concerned about your industry, the industry your company works in.

The view was supported by IT Business Edge's Mike Vizard during a presentation he gave this morning at the inaugural ITBE-sponsored Midmarket CIO Forum in Orlando. (Yes, I'm writing that up now instead of catching some sun on the pool deck.) Vizard told attendees:

People think you can run IT at a fruit company and then run IT at a chemical company. I'd argue that's insane. That's why business people begin to see IT as a utility. When I talk to CIOs, many of them have more loyalty to IT than to the industry they are working in. I think you add more value if you become a specialist. That's how you make IT integral to the business.

During the Q&A session, one of the attendees said he addressed this issue by assuming leadership and responsibility for the overall IT function and appointing chief operating officers within IT to deal more directly with business-specific issues. Close communication with these internal COOs is important, he said.


Some other interesting thoughts from Vizard's presentation:

IT executives need to begin assigning value to the data within their organizations instead of treating it all the same way in terms of where it's stored and how it's used. Too many IT departments manage data without understanding its importance, he said, which creates "one of the big disconnects between the business and IT." About two months ago, I wrote about the need for IT departments to assume a stronger role in data governance. Last week Vizard wrote about a new class of data governance tools that allow IT organizations to manage datawhile giving business users responsibility for actually delegating who has the right to access that information, offering Courion's Access Assurance Suite 8.0. as one example.


Why does the business hate IT, Vizard asked. His answer: "You ask them to bend to the way your software works." What the business really wants is for IT to be able to pull together core components to support their processes in three months or less instead of 18 months, he said. With virtualization, cloud computing and other emerging technologies, Vizard said pieces of an eventual strategy for doing this are beginning to come together. Like other observers, he envisions a hybrid model in which certain applications will move to the cloud while others remain on-premise. But even those that remain on-premise must become more modular, he said.


IT can't win if it doesn't start automating more processes, and that includes its own internal processes, Vizard said. "I can't understand why IT is used to automate all sorts of processes except those in IT." He acknowledged that internal politics and fear of losing IT jobs played a part but urged IT leaders not to let those concerns hold them back. "You need to determine how you can shift your staff to activities that add real value to the business," he said.


Consumer technology is shaping folks' view of internal IT, and that's not a bad thing. He asked how many attendees supported engineers. When several hands went up, he said, "We all know they're the biggest pain in the butt to support because they think they know more than you do." That's essentially what's beginning to happen throughout organizations as users become more tech savvy, creating headaches for IT personnel worried about breaches of security and other issues. But, said Vizard, "I'd rather have somebody interested and dangerous than ignorant and useless."


He offered Citibank as organization that's come up with an interesting way to educate its business leaders about IT, by hosting an annual "IT Fair," in which IT personnel demonstrate technologies for business folks. That helps create what Vizard called the "Tom Sawyer syndrome." That is, "You show them the technology and get them to paint the fence." He added, "Taking them out of their box and showing them different ways to approach things, using technology, is part of your job."


A good CIO not only takes it upon himself to rearchitect business processes, he empowers his staff to do so as well, Vizard said. Instead of just thinking of themselves as support staff, IT pros should be encouraged to always look for opportunities for process improvement. A good way to start, he suggested, is by asking staff to help improve internal IT processes, then having them take those skills out to the broader business.