The All-Important Fourth Dimension of the CIO

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We hit a collective nerve -- and prompted plenty of intelligent discourse -- with our recent blog about what Nicholas Carr characterizes as an "identity crisis" among CIOs.


CIOUpdate columnist Allen Bernard liked one of our reader comments so well he chose to highlight it. The reader, Australian management consultant Jed Simms, succintly presented what he considers the "six dimensions" of the CIO: running operations, improving operations, supporting applications development, improving IT's performance, improving business operations and improving business performance.


While the first four are givens, says Bernard, many CIOs struggle with the last two. He quotes Symantec CIO Dave Thompson, who says that it's tough for CIOs to move into the business realm without the support of an executive team, CEO and board.


Yet that support is often lacking. We blogged about that recently as well. A recent CIO Insight survey appears to bear this out. A whopping 78 percent of respondents agree the CIO role will change dramatically in the next five years.


Asked which responsibilities were important now and which would be important in five years, those showing the greatest predicted growth relate strongly to enabling business rather than improving IT operations. Indeed those related most closely to operations ("leading or overseeing the company's IT projects," for example) sharply dropped in perceived importance.


While just 8 percent of respondents said technical acumen was important to their success as a CIO, 50 percent tapped leadership ability. Business understanding and strategic thinking each received votes of 40 percent. So there is no question that CIOs "get" it.


Yet the percentage of CIOs reporting directly to CEOs has declined steadily from 2003, from 62 percent then to 48 percent today. More CIOs now report to senior finance and operations executives.


Other than getting frustrated, what can CIOs do about this apparent disconnect between what their companies want them to do, and the responsibilities they are willing to give them? At least part of the answer comes from our smart reader, Jed Simms.


Simms characterizes the first three of his six dimensions as "basics." To move beyond what he calls a "glass ceiling," he says CIOs must change the perception of IT. How to do so? Maybe by focusing on his fourth dimension (downplayed a bit by Bernard in his CIOUpdate piece): improving IT's performance.


Maybe the best way to earn the attention of well-placed senior executives and prove that IT has a key role to play in business strategy is by running IT more like a successful business within a business -- and that implies not just making operational improvements but finding ways to make IT more flexible and responsive to business needs.