CIOs Uncensored: Big Transition, Big Role, Big Thinker - InformationWeek

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John Soat
John Soat

CIOs Uncensored: Big Transition, Big Role, Big Thinker

MIT IT researcher Jeanne Ross sees an opportunity opening up for CIOs to step into a bigger role.

"Don't think you can just run it."

That's Jeanne Ross' best advice to the modern-day CIO. And Ross isn't without bona fides when it comes to what CIOs can or should do. Here's her resumé:

"Jeanne W. Ross is Principal Research Scientist at the MIT Center for Information Systems Research. Her research focuses on the management of the IT unit, particularly on the management of IT infrastructure and on changes in management demanded by new technologies and new organizational forms. Her current research focuses on the management of technology infrastructures that enable organizational transformations and on the discussion of IT value between IT and business management."

Ross has been studying the intersection of IT and business for many, many years, and she thinks the role of the CIO is at a turning point. Not that we haven't heard this before. But Ross is what you'd call a big thinker, and when you combine that with years of field work researching and analyzing IT management, you get someone who deserves a listen.

"Here's what I think is going on," she says. "The CIO, better than anyone else, recognizes that decisions about IT are decisions about business processes." Automation assumed, it's the change in business process that's the most valuable part of the IT implementation. "The savvy CIO describes the implications of major IT investments, and the implications are also about process," she says.

Problem is, in too many organizations no one takes responsibility for that business process change across the enterprise, which is why so many IT implementations fail to live up to their potential. "What often happens is that you don't drive the value out of your new systems, don't drive the benefits," Ross says. "Companies say, 'We've got systems that should perform and are not.' "

So who's the likely candidate to assume the role of business process manager? Guess who. "If you don't have the CIO taking on this role, you just don't get the process improvements," she says. And Ross has come up with her own sobriquet for this new position: strategic execution officer.

But doesn't this sound like somebody else's job? "We get that a lot: 'Isn't this the CEO you're describing?' " she says. "No, that person's responsible for picking markets, establishing strategy, mergers, and acquisitions. This is more about end-to-end processes," Ross says.

The SEO role represents a big opportunity. "If CIOs want to sit at the senior management table, they're going to have to take leadership roles," she says. "Don't think that you can just run IT. IT just isn't a big enough concern to warrant a place at the senior management table."

There are plenty of CIOs who don't see themselves suited for the role, Ross says. "We've definitely talked to CIOs who said, 'I don't want this job but the CEO is asking me to do this, so I'll give it my best shot.' " And that's OK. "Why go into your 'uncomfort zone'?" she says. "Become a CTO."

Because it cuts across business units, the SEO is a "big role" that involves "horizontal thinking," Ross says, and is suited mostly to big companies.

"This is new, something we didn't do before," she says. "We're really seeing transition."

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