Why Are CIOs So Prone to Self-Analysis?

Ann All

I can't decide if it's healthy or unhealthy for CIOs to subject themselves to so much self-analysis about their work. Maybe it's a good thing to constantly strive to better define the role you can play in business improvement. But few other executives seem so conflicted. Do CEOs and CFOs worry that their job titles aren't descriptive enough, in the same way that at least some CIOs seemingly do?


There's even a debate in some quarters about whether organizations should split the existing CIO role into two separate ones, one to handle highly technical projects and the other a broader and more strategy-focused role that emphasizes process improvement.


IT Business Edge's Mike Vizard found IBM's annual study of CIOs "a little patronizing" in how it attempts to classify CIOs into groups such as "insightful visionaries" and "able pragmatists." He writes:


You can't help but wonder if the report is deliberately designed to try to play to some supposed inferiority complex of the CIO. The simple fact is that a CIO has to be both an innovative business leader and first-rate technologist. In some cases, those functions may be split across multiple people. So in instance where a CIO is classified as an insightful visionary, chances are really good that the CIO is backed up by one or more able pragmatists. At the same time, the circumstances of the company and the industry a CIO works in is going to have a lot to do with whether they are "high-growth CIO" or a "low-growth CIO."


Yet technology executives themselves sometimes play the categorization game. At the recent InformationWeek 500 conference, Amazon CTO Werner Vogels, whom InformationWeek selected as its top tech executive of the year for 2008, described four types of CTOs:

  • An operational CTO, tasked with keeping IT running.
  • Development leaders, who focus more on product development than on day-to-day IT activities.
  • Deep thinkers, who are expected to work with internal R&D teams (for the companies that still have them) and come up with "breakthrough" ideas.
  • Customer-facing CTOs, who focus on communicating with external customers. Vogels said his role shifted to this one when Amazon decided to try and sell cloud computing services to companies.


Sadly, I do think tech executives have more of an inferiority complex than other members of the C-suite. I got some great comments from readers in response to a post I wrote about the six dimensions of the CIO in 2007. Several of them described a role seemingly in flux and seeking more widespread acceptance in the business community. (Many, if not most, of my readers hold positions in IT although the anonymous nature of the Internet makes it impossible to know if this is true of those who left comments. And of course, there is no guarantee they are even who they say they are.) Wrote Richard Paz:


There is the definite perception that the IT department is important to the overall day to day opeational funcitionality of a business but it is only a delivery system that provides sets of data, e-mail and a vechile for daily "work." The IT department appears to be the necessary "cousin" but perhaps the most misunderstood department within an organizational structure. It is there, it is necessary but regarded as a minor player within many organizations.


Another reader, Sashi, wrote:


Information management (along with couple of brethren) are perceived as enablers, at least perceived to be so. The perception drives the direction. Hence CIOs are not considered to be great players contributing to business operations and performance.


From Vinnie Marchionni, Jr.:


William Synnott coined the term CIO in the early 1980s and defined the the position to be the blending of technology knowledge and business knowledge and business acumen. We have been whining about the difficulties of being able to wear both hats since then. We have examples of other "C levels" who have business acumen and specialized knowledge. The CFO is often a CPA who rose from being chief accountant to a senior manager. The COO will be the number two senior executive, one who understands the daily operations better than the CEO but who also shows superb business acumen.


From Deejay:


I believe one of the reasons that IT is slipping from the top management view is that the focus has, to a large extent, been on improving EFFICIENCY of operations (reducing cycle times of transactions, coping with volumes, reducing costs, etc.) rather than the EFFECTIVENESS of business.


And finally, from Sam:


A CIO role should not be made more complex by mixing it with infrastructure etc, but should be kept as "Information" that help or give business a competitive advantage. A CIO should be able to convince the board that by embarking on some Information systems strategy and guarantee the board that amongst others benefits will be increase in revenue. It all boils down to increase in sales that increase revenue. If CIOs can get this right, their place in the board will be there.


One thing on which I think all can agree -- and Vizard writes in his post: Successful CIOs must be multi-faceted leaders. Vizard wishes IBM and others would take this as a given and move on from there, rather than endlessly trying to classify CIOs. I think CIOs themselves need to do the same.

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