Grooming Future CIOs – Relationships still rocky

Today’s chief information officer must talk in business-speak and offer real business value, but industry experts say CEOs must also change

While some CEOs understand how the role of the CIO is changing, the vast majority still don’t recognize these changes or understand what to do about them.

There’s been a significant move away from deep technical competency to requiring an understanding of the business, being able to deal with peers using business-speak and delivering business value to the organization, said Keith Powell, founder and principal of Keith Powell Consulting.

“The old-school CIO that was heavy into technology is going the way of the dinosaur and it’s going very quickly,” he said. But while there are a few clued-in CEOs who recognize these changes, he said, the vast majority are at sea on the whole issue of information technology.

“They see it as a significant cost burden to the organization and struggle with recognizing both how to and whether they’re getting value out of the investment they’re making in information technology,” he said. “What’s required is a much tighter rein on that investment and a focused view of where the organization can get the biggest bang for the buck.”

CEOs are no longer talking about three-year projects that will change the world. Now they’re looking at a focused attack on specific areas of weakness within the organization that can be addressed with technology. And they want to start seeing some kind of return on that investment within three to six months.

The vast majority of CEOs are struggling with this, said Powell, since they don’t know what to do with the CIO. And if they happen to have an aggressive CIO who wants to step in and make things happen, that’s a further conundrum to the CEO because he or she doesn’t understand how all of this is going to play out.

“CEOs are tired of investing into the black hole called technology only to get not much in return,” said James Norrie, director of information technology management with Ryerson University’s School of Business. “CEOs and boards are becoming very aware that they need candidates who can sort out the interface between business and technology.”

There’s always been tension between the CEO and CIO, and the whole outsourcing issue has muddled things up, said Peter Keen, founder and chairman of Keen Innovations. “If you have a CIO whose job is to cut the budget, that inevitably means outsourcing, which inevitably means this becomes more of a commodity and the CIO is a caretaker,” he said.

Don’t lecture
What CEOs are looking for is less defined by the job than by the mission, he said. Sometimes that mission is helping to innovate, sometimes it’s to rationalize costs, and sometimes it’s to make a reorganization work. “That is often overlooked,” he said. “If you don’t have a mission, it’s a very difficult job.”

And if you don’t have the right relationship with the CEO, it doesn’t matter what your job title is, he added. “I’ve seen a number of very skilled CIOs basically talk their way out of a job. They lecture. One CEO said to me, ‘[The CIO] was always trying to supplicate me.’”

CIOs should have a vision and plan for the organization that drives a business architecture where there is a tight link between process and information technology, said Powell. They should also understand how the business must change its operations in order to get the most out of new processes and technology. Along with this comes an increasing expectation to be visible, visit peers and listen to what employees are saying – and be able to bring that back to the boardroom with solutions to address those issues.

“CEOs are looking for decisiveness, and this is in a field that’s generally marked by long-term indecision,” said Keen. “The bulk of the IT field is self-motivated. They’re more interested in their profession than their company . . . so that can block the emergence of a new generation of leaders.”

But not only do CIOs need to change, so do CEOs. “My belief is that CEOs do not provide the open organizational support that CIOs today require, only because they’re so beaten up by everyone around them,” said Powell. We need to get to a point where CEOs buy into the vision and support the CIO in boardroom battles, which is rare today – but that will only happen when they recognize what the CIO is doing will help get the organization where it needs to be, he said.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Vawn Himmelsbach
Vawn Himmelsbach
Is a Toronto-based journalist and regular contributor to IT World Canada's publications.

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