CIO influence sliding fast

By admin, April 7, 2010 1:47 am

It's no secret that the role of the CIO has been diminished by the confluence of factors stemming from the recession, the increasing consumerization of technology, and the external pressures of utility computing, but new data suggests that the position is slipping away from business relevance even faster than previously speculated.

Diamond Digital reports that nearly 1/3 of IT related spending happens outside of the IT department. How much influence can the CIO hope to have on corporate technology when a third of it is decided on without his or her input? More provocatively, how much influence should the CIO have if they can't provide a better alternative internally for all those spending initiatives?
Thomas Wailgum writes of the role that complex legacy systems have played in this process (coincidentally, Clay Shirky recently put out a broader take on how complexity evolves and hampers adaptation) .

As Wailgum notes, none of this evolved dependence has done anything to endear the CIO, or IT in general, to other executives… quite the opposite, in fact. The tremendous failure rate for IT projects combined with the growing dependency has left CEOs, boards, and other executives quite rightly frightened. Is it any wonder that they are taking what discretionary funding they have and shopping around outside the organization for solutions?

Sure, the deck has been stacked against the CIO in some respects; Chris Curran and John Sviokla present an interesting take on how the dual status of the position (as staff and line executives both) has confused the rest of the business and not infrequently CIOs themselves. And there are no shortage of finger-pointing diatribes out there otherwise describing how IT is set up to fail by the harsh circumstances of corporate expectations.

Of course, the IT department and the CIOs running it haven't always played a small role in shaping those expectations. If CIOs have been placed in a difficult position, they have not always covered themselves in glory in dealing with the difficulties. Running their departments as private fiefdoms, steering the business toward solutions built more toward IT's preferences than business requirements, and generally embracing the gatekeeper role over that of innovator, CIOs in many cases have busily been digging their own graves even as business executives have been looking for a tree to hang them from.

It's worth noting that the "line executive" role that Curran and Sviokla highlight is a relatively new one that has evolved into the job for many CIOs only recently, as technology has advanced to a point that allows it to serve in a prominently productive, rather than strictly supportive, capacity. The patterns established while acting as the plumber and gatekeeper have made it difficult to embrace the potential of the newer role. It's not altogether clear to me that many of the people today wearing the CIO hat are suited to the duality of those posts. You only have to look at the historic failure rates for IT projects to understand how untenable the position is; where else (except perhaps the financial sector, judging by recent events) could a line executive with customer-facing responsibilities have half of their efforts fail and still keep their job? The industry has conditioned us to expect failure in far greater proportion than would be acceptable to most business executives, which both accounts for some of the friction there and illustrates just how far most CIOs are from being ready to step up into an expanded role of that sort.

It may be that there is a little too much navel-gazing going on in the CIO world over these issues, too much posturing and territorial defensiveness. It's threatening to look at the numbers and the trends when your job is at stake, but it does little good to try to explain them away. Instead, understanding why it is that all this has come to pass might be the best way to figure out how to hang on to a meaningful role in the corporation. As I have said before, the CIO who wants to succeed needs to be out in front of these curves, controlling the progression, even when doing so actually means giving up some control. We're repeatedly being shown evidence that the ways that corporate IT has done things under the reign of the CIO haven't worked out well, and that different approaches that incorporate the business as the primary driver of information technology projects are more successful. There is a disconnect when CIOs assume that they can bottle that magic and recreate it inside the IT department under their own strict controls. Those things work because they are coming from line staff in the first place. IT can't replicate that without becoming something that is not IT.

Ultimately that is the key to where the CIO role is heading. The next generation of CIOs may well see themselves (and be referred to) as business executives first, and technologists only second. Strategic thinking and leadership for information technology may simply be folded, as it should be, directly into strategic thinking and leadership for the business as a whole. If the CEO already has a good grasp of the capabilities of current technology, does she need a CIO at all?

Photo source quillons

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