The poor CIO, the role is perhaps around ten years old, at one time was discussed as a role that ought to lead to being seen as a board level executive and now? The discussion on what the role the CIO has to play, and even sometimes does the CIO have a role at all, is everywhere. Seems the CIOs themselves are not too convinced of their future either as late last year a survey by The Economist magazine had around a third questioning if there would be a central IT function in five years time. Well just to remove this alternative debate from the table my view is yes there will be a central IT department, but it is one of two major ways that IT will be deployed within the enterprise to support business.

Let’s recap for a moment to the late 80s when the role of computers in the enterprise was exactly that, to compute, centrally, under the command of the Data Processing Manager, or DPM as we knew him/her. The PC was a nasty little computer lacking all the attributes that the DPM knew were needed for reliable transaction processing, managed data backups, etc. The users, mostly young MBAs, didn’t care as they didn’t want to compute, they wanted personal information, when and where it was needed to help them do their job better. The original ‘killer app’, the spreadsheet, drove such high value in departments, and was so cheap to do, that departments just went right ahead and bought more and more PCs, with networks for cross communication, till the overall impact on the business was bigger than that of the ‘computers’.
What was that impact and value? Information! But by now there was so much of it, and so often conflicting, that an information centric approach was required, and not a processing centric approach. Hello CIO and goodbye DPM, except it wasn’t quite true, those big mainframes were still needed, but in a different way, what today we think of as the ‘Back office’, whilst the focus had moved to the ‘Front Office’. Funny how history repeats itself, because that’s pretty close to the challenge that CIOs and business are facing today in questioning where is the value, and what is the role, to manage getting the value.
Smart young users adding a new generation of software to their PCs that they think will help them do their job better, mostly based around using the Web and Open Source with communication tools to make them better informed and able to react quicker. Generally being encouraged by their departmental managers to JDI, ‘Just Do It’, it’s cheap and the results are great, so why wait for MIS to tell us we can’t have it. The so-called ‘Shadow IT’ phenomena that is alive and well in almost every enterprise today! In defence of the CIO, with their current role, and responsibilities, for safe, secure, managed transaction based computing, they would try to stop this dangerous set of new technologies, but just as the DPM couldn’t stop change due to the obvious accessible business value nether will they succeed.
So the question is how to learn from history and manage change, and that means making a choice of which role the CIO should play in different organisations; the force for innovation and change; or the force for conservatism and security of enterprise operations. Both are going to be required but the skill sets are different, and different industry sectors will place different values on the two parts. The role of existing IT as the infrastructure on which an Enterprise trades together with the pressures to manage compliance, security, and support a new generation of trading protocols for the ‘book to bill’ process sequence of inter company trading may be the most important aspect of their business, leading to the Chief Infrastructure Officer role. In others words, the ability to focus on innovation in business capabilities through rapid adoption of new technologies will be the leading role calling for a very different skills profile in the Chief Innovation officer.
I believe it’s time for CIOs to drive the debate in their own enterprises by defining the type of business and where the value is to be found, then the profile of the roles required to make this happen. Both are needed and maybe some existing CIOs will wish to choose which role they will play, complimenting their own skills with that of a colleague. However there may be a third role, and this is at board level; the ability to bring transformation to the business to use both aspects to drive success; the Chief Improvement Officer! What is the profile of this role? I would say it seems to be a return to the roots of the first generation of CIOs when this was the key role that the newly appointed CIO played, but under all those other activities that have come along over the years this aspect seems to have become squeezed out. Time to re-invent ourselves!!