In Praise of Multi-Faceted CIOs


The annual study of CIOs conducted by IBM is being released today with the usual amount of fanfare. As you might expect, business intelligence and virtualization rank as the two highest priorities of CIOs. BI tops the list because it adds value to the business, while virtualization drives down costs.

There's nothing wrong with conducting such surveys, but if you read the accompanying report it's a little patronizing in terms of how it attempts to classify CIOs. The report attempts to put CIOs in various groups, with some CIOs more focused on being "insightful visionaries" while others are classified as "able pragmatists." As the study goes on, it then starts to classify respondents by whether they are "high-growth CIOs" or "low-growth CIOs."

The study recognizes that at any given moment a CIO is going to have any number of contradictory and complementary qualities. According to the study, they include being a visionary, a pragmatist, a value creator, a cost cutter, a business leader and an IT manager. Like any business executive, the CIO is responsible for enabling new business processes while controlling expenses. Failure to accomplish any of the aforementioned goals is going to end badly for all concerned. Basically, that means a successful CIO, like every other executive, is going to need to be all of the above in order to succeed.

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."

While the IBM study might make some for interesting reading, any time you attempt to classify people you need bring not just a grain, but an entire shaker, of salt. People never fit neatly into classifications, which is one of the reasons that the census system is increasingly seen as being deeply flawed. The IBM study highlights the dynamic qualities needed to be a CIO, albeit using a flawed approach.

What's important to remember is that the truly successful CIO has always been a multi-faceted leader. Recognizing this in the first place might have made for a more interesting starting point from which to gain more insight into their real strategic needs.