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CIOs have to be business people? No kiddin’!

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Make it stop!

Several decades ago, some wise pundit wrote that CIOs should be business people, not technology people. The resulting article has been republished, with slight changes in paragraph order and phrasing details, over and over again ever since.

None of these repetitions has fixed the fundamental flaw in the original. As I pointed out a year and a half ago on CIO.com, replace the “I” with any other capitalized executive middle letter and see where the logic takes you: CFOs should, according to this logic, be business people, not financial people; COOs should be business people, not operations people; CMOs should be business people whose knowledge of marketing is optional.

And yet, as if the endless repetitions never happened, here comes McKinsey to make it official: For years, we’re now told, executives have stressed the need for CIOs to move beyond simply managing IT to leveraging technology to create value for the business. This priority is now a requirement. (“The CIO challenge: Modern business needs a new kind of tech leader,” Anusha Dhasarathy, Isha Gill, and Naufal Khan, McKinsey Digital, January, 2020).

I suppose I should be gratified. This iteration endorses positions we (“we” being my co-author, Dave Kaiser, and I) took in There’s No Such Thing as an IT Project, (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, September, 2019), not that McKinsey’s authors acknowledged our precedence.

Oh, well.

In addition to the unneeded repetition, The CIO Challenge also makes the Monolithicity Mistake, namely, providing just a single “new” job description all CIOs must abide by. Just as no one strategy fits all businesses, neither will just a single approach to IT leadership.

That being the case, here are a few of the alternatives available to you as an IT leader. Choose one, or create your own hybrid:

Chief IT Officer: While KJR doesn’t generally endorse the old IT-as-a-business-with-internal-customers IT organizational model (see, for example, “Customers vs Consumers,” InfoWorld, October 25, 1999), sometimes it’s the best you can do.

This model does have an advantage: If you’re running IT as a business you can hardly be accused of not being a businessperson. So long as, that is, you really do run IT as a business, complete with its own, independently derived strategy, operating model, and other accoutrements of a standalone corporation.

Chief Integration Officer: Buy when you can. Build when you have to.

As the IT applications marketplace has matured, more and more of the functionality a business manager needs to operate effectively already exists and is ready to license.

That’s in contrast to developing an application in-house, where you haven’t even articulated the user stories that define what it’s supposed to do.

But … license applications from multiple vendors and you’ll find their data models don’t easily mesh.

That’s what makes integration an intrinsically hard problem to solve.

Beyond this, from the perspective of each application’s business owner, integration is someone else’s problem.

Therein lies an opportunity. Embrace so-called “shadow IT.” Let business owners choose their own applications. Limit IT’s role to their integration so that, metaphorically, even though the business owns several watches it still knows the time.

Chief Transformation Officer: All so-called IT projects are really business change projects or what’s the point?

Add to this another level of difficulty when it comes to making business change happen: Most business managers know how to keep things the same — to make sure their areas of responsibility run the same way tomorrow as they did yesterday, with incremental improvements, perhaps, but not dramatically different.

Making transformational change happen just isn’t what they know how to do.

It can be what IT knows how to do, out of self-defense if nothing else. After all, when so-called IT projects don’t deliver business benefit, it’s IT that’s left holding the bag.

Chief IT Infrastructure Officer: IT runs the data center and all of the IT infrastructure needed for business-unit-based application teams to do their work.

This was a thankless model even before cloud computing became popular. Now? If the CEO asks you to assume the role of CITIO, just say yes … to make you’re gainfully employed while launching the job search you start tomorrow.

Chief Strategy Officer: Welcome to the world of Digital-as-a-noun, where businesses shift their emphasis from cost-reduction to revenue enhancement and information technology is assumed, not cost-justified on a case-by-case basis.

Take it a step further: information technology isn’t merely assumed. Each new, emerging technology translates to a potential new business capability. New capabilities potentially translate to new and better products and customer experiences.

In the Digital world, then, IT drives business strategy — it doesn’t merely support it.

One drawback: driving business strategy isn’t something you’d do instead of your current job.

It’s in addition.

Comments (6)

  • Like our day to day infrastructure mostly we don’t think of IT. We think about it only when things don’t work.

    It lives in a realm I’ll call, “Always broken, never working.”

    That’s the user’s perspective. 99.999% uptime means nothing to them when their systems are down.

    Users are often poorly trained or not trained at all (that’s not IT’s fault) but it’s a consequence we all live with.

    The user doesn’t appreciate that fixing things often is like changing the tire on the car while you’re still driving.

    What’s IT’s business case them? The bottom line, maintaining and supporting internal customers, etc. Pick one, pick all.

  • A terrific edition of KJR . . .

  • Excellent write-up, Bob.

    Regarding the CIO, my personal experience is that he really is JUST a business man. His concern is the bottom line, NOT technology. In a brief, prior job, we had a CTO, who genuinely was interested in moving technology forward.

  • It occurs to me that top management should look to hire or promote IT to upper management who went to small liberal arts colleges that were strong in the sciences. You can get a liberal education from a large school that is strong in science and math (U of Michigan comes to mind), but I’m not sure how realistic or fair it is to expect that an IT grad from MIT or Cal Tech really has the background or more importantly, the inclination to want to be a business person.
    Of course, there are many exceptions, but I have to wonder if that is one factor in not enough CIO’s “getting it”, as your column suggested to me.

  • Hi Bob, I’m afraid I have to take you to task for this one.

    Since when does the “I” in “Information” always reduce to what technology platform you deploy?

    Information in organisations is often *mediated* by technology, it’s true, but sound information management practices (organising, storing, and distributing information) are independent of the software stack you choose.

    Here’s a short list of things that CIOs should *also* be considering, but rarely consider worthy of their attention:

    – legislative requirements relating to retention, privacy, right to know / freedom of information
    – shared vocabularies / dictionaries
    – optimising information interchange, eg through common data schema, data dictionaries and agreed exchange formats (internal and external)
    – effectively balancing the business tradeoffs of information storage and retrieval (the iPad app 4x slower than the trusty paper pad says hello)
    – information enrichment and transformation
    – business intelligence to guide decision making (the actual work of designing and maintaining the reports, not just installing the platform)

    I don’t see these in any of the job descriptions you provide…

    • Well, first of all I never suggest my list was exhaustive. I also think you’ll find at least some of your thinking covered under Chief Integration Officer.

      What I think you’re proposing is a role definition that takes the words “Information Officer” literally.

      Not a bad alternative, either. BTW: I’ve seen much of what you describe subsumed under the Master Data Management umbrella.

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