The Future CIO - Are You Prepared?

CIOCIOs are under more pressure than ever. The job is incredibly challenging. Despite recent arguments to the contrary, we believe information technology is at the heart of corporate strategy. IT must deliver more systems faster and operate them in a fail-safe environment. Being successful as a CIO requires an unusual combination of technical know-how, business acumen, and organizational leadership skills. It's a job with a sometimes short life cycle, and it takes a seemingly superhuman to do it effectively. I read this great article in InformationWeek from Dr. James Cash and Dr. Keri Pearlson. Hope you enjoy it!

Why does this characterization sound so familiar? Partly, we suspect, because you've heard it before-and continue to hear it over and over. Observers have been spouting generalizations and hyperbole about the challenges of IT management for well over 30 years, or as long as the job has existed. The job certainly is difficult, and many otherwise capable managers have foundered in the role of CIO. The questions we want to address in this article are how the job really has changed, and what it takes to survive and even succeed as a CIO today. Our conclusion is that, spurred in large part by the business implications and opportunities of information technology, the CIO job has become much more complex and more business critical than ever. This is a mixed blessing. CIOs who fail to understand the new reality may find themselves both overpromising and underdelivering. They may well be setting themselves up for high-profile failure.

Successful CIOs today are far more than IT strategists and functional managers. They see themselves as business strategists and change agents. In most large companies, the CIO is expected to play a strong leadership role-and not just about technology architectures and capabilities. They're actively involved in exploring new business opportunities, in advising line managers on how to launch IT-dependent business ventures, and in defining priorities for fundamental organizational transformation. Most businesses simply can't succeed without a strong IT function. The stakes for CIOs and their organizations couldn't be higher.

The "New" CIO Role Our research and conversations with dozens of CIOs and business executives has confirmed that the successful CIO today in most large companies is a different creature than even five years ago. Here are a few of our findings:

The business and technology contexts surrounding the CIO are substantially different than ever before. The job has become far more complex at the same time that the critical nature of information systems has gone up by an order of magnitude in virtually every business. To compound matters, there's an unprecedented urgency to develop and implement IT capabilities-an urgency that often flies in the face of what has traditionally constituted good IT management practice.

CIOs are struggling to manage this complexity, and meet the expectations of their bosses, peers, and subordinates. Life in this fast track may be exciting, but it can also be stressful and lonely.

Too many CIOs continue to spend most of their time with their internal staff. They spend very little time interacting with outside customers, in spite of the growing importance of IT in supporting customer information and interorganizational processes.

IT organizations are facing enormous pressure to accelerate the delivery of services. Virtually every other functional area in business has become significantly more dependent on IT. And the Internet and the new business models it has spawned have created a widespread expectation that information systems can be developed and implemented very quickly.

While some industry analysts have been heralding the "demise of the CIO," we believe exactly the opposite is true. The CIO role has indeed become more complex, and the full gamut of CIO responsibilities may need to be shared by several individuals. But our research suggests that the CIO's strategic importance is greater than ever.

CIOs see themselves playing five primary roles: business strategist, IT strategist, IT functional leader, technology advocate, and change agent. This configuration is new and represents a significant shift in emphasis from the past. Indeed, the best role model for a CIO may be the CEO, who must balance a wide variety of priorities and influence a very diverse group of managers and specialists to achieve tangible outcomes.

Unlike many other functionally focused managers, successful CIOs operate as true general managers and senior business executives. They often have a varied career history that includes graduate-level education in business and management, significant periods of time working outside IT, and-surprisingly-they often have substantial experience managing overseas operations.

There's no simple or single job description of the CIO role. We've identified four distinctively different CIO job types: corporate CIO for operations, corporate CIO for functional leadership, business unit CIO, and regional CIO. But even within those categories there are major variations from one company to another in job requirements, business priorities, and organizational challenges.

CIO Of The Future To ensure future success, you should start with a deep and thoughtful look at yourself and your situation. What are your personal strengths and limitations? Do you thrive on complexity, on rapid-fire decision making, on life in a fishbowl? Can you operate as a true general manager, holding both your staff and your peers accountable for IT performance? Do you have a clear vision of the future of IT in your company in terms of both its strategic role and the IT functional organization needed to build and deliver the required capabilities? Can you commit to dramatic change and ensure that others do what's needed to accomplish that change-even if that means overhauling staff and skills, offshoring, outsourcing, or having to confront peers in other areas of the business? Do you truly understand what your companies' customers want and need? Do you spend at least 20% of your time listening to and talking with customers? Can your IT organization deliver new, highly reliable application functionality in 90 days or less? Do you have full accountability for IT investments and architectural decisions? Is your IT organization delivering systems at the pace and with the bulletproof quality your company needs? Have you delegated responsibility for IT operations and freed your time and energy to focus on the business opportunities and performance of IT?

If you can answer these kinds of questions confidently and affirmatively, welcome to the future! If not, you may need to reassess your role and your ability to fill it. A CIO today must be focused on customers, on the business, and on the future. If your workweek is consumed with IT management issues rather than with business leadership and innovation, you probably won't succeed as a CIO.

Key Recommendations Faced with this complexity and urgency, the CIO must balance his or her time and priorities among a number of competing but equally critical goals. Individual CIOs must make choices: what to focus on, who to spend time with, what to learn, and what to do. Your personal agenda depends on your own situation-as a CIO, you must first be very clear about the business imperatives and the personal issues you have to focus on. There's no simple way to operate IT in the future. However, there's a large set of tactical actions that a CIO can take to deal with the core dilemmas of IT leadership and accelerate the way the IT organization operates. While none of these tactics is revolutionary or even new, taken together they have the potential for dramatically accelerating the delivery of IT services:

  • Simplify the operating environment, governance, work processes, and task priorities that form the context for IT work.
  • The first step in simplification is to establish a standard business and technology architecture and use it as the basis for all IT technology decisions and vendor selections.
  • Move toward a simpler organizational structure for IT, centralizing infrastructure responsibilities and decentralizing application development and implementation responsibilities wherever possible.
  • Be very clear about your own organizational situation and the business requirements that must be satisfied. Establish an explicit short list of goals and stick to it.
  • Focus your time and energy outside the functional IT organization. Spend as much time as possible with external customers or suppliers (choose them based on strategic importance). We recommend at least 20% of your time, or one day a week, on average.
  • If your internal staff isn't strong enough for you to delegate most of your operational responsibilities, then devote a reasonable amount of time to strengthening the IT organization. (For most organizations this must be accomplished in six to nine months.) As the organization matures, shift your emphasis to spending more time with business clients and external customers.
  • As CIO, think of yourself as the CEO of an IT products and services company, regardless of whether you have a large staff or have outsourced all of your operations. Focus your time and attention on strategic issues, on external relationships, and on the future.
  • To accomplish this strategic leadership role, think of yourself as a storyteller and an entrepreneur, not as a controller. Adopt a marketing mind-set and introduce marketing processes into the IT organization to complement (not replace) the engineering disciplines that currently characterize the IT profession.
  • Establish clear, explicit goals for shortening IT decision and development cycles. Focus the entire IT organization on accelerating all of its core business processes.
  • Find the right balance for you personally, and for your organization, between fostering organizational change and exploiting the potential of IT, on the one hand, and ensuring the discipline to produce highly reliable, bulletproof systems and infrastructure, on the other.
  • Manage your own time and personal agenda carefully-and explicitly. Be sure to reserve enough time for reflection, learning, and peer-to-peer networking. Adapt your leadership style to match the needs of your organization, combining collaborative problem solving with task-focused direction setting to produce a cohesive, committed organization.

Dr. James I. Cash recently completed a 27-year career as a professor and senior associate dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration. He's a member of InformationWeek's Editorial Advisory Board. Dr. Keri E. Pearlson is a research director with the Concours Group. Numerous graduate programs use her book, "Managing And Using Information Systems: A Strategic Approach," to train future IT leaders.