Stop Worrying About The CIO Role

IT will change dramatically, but centralized technology leadership will remain vital.

If I read one more commentary fretting over the fate of the CIO, I'm going to plotz.

Will the CMO spend more on technology than the CIO?

Will line-of-business execs take over all IT responsibility?

Will cloud and consumer tech eliminate the need for in-house IT?

No, no, and no.

If you need to fret about something, worry about polar bears surviving global warming. Worry about your cholesterol. Worry about getting electrocuted if you take a bath in a thunderstorm.

But really, you can stop worrying about the future of the CIO position.

Predicting that we'll continue to need centralized IT leadership doesn't mean I think IT will stay the same. IT will change dramatically thanks to a handful of technologies that are maturing to the point where companies will start to make very big bets on them. Think customer-facing digital technologies such as analytics and, yes, cloud.

But these forces will do more to secure the role of a strong, central technology leader than to supplant it. Here are a few reasons.

Customer-facing tech ups the stakes
We've been writing a lot about companies needing to embrace digital business. A big change that comes with digital business involves putting technology front-and-center with your customer interactions, where the buyer is interacting directly with your technology. It could be mobile apps that a customer uses, or that a repair technician uses to interact with a customer. Or it could be an "Internet of Things" application -- connecting the product you sell to the Internet so that data can flow back-and-forth from company to customer.

[ The tech that matters most now is data -- what does that mean for CIOs? Read Will CDO Steal CIO's Leadership Role? ]

This is where people argue against the CIO: Marketing presumably takes over those customer apps, or product groups take over that Internet of Things functionality.

But this customer-facing data won't stay in a neat marketing or product development container. Consider the Internet of Things example of putting sensors in a tractor or jet engine to send data back to the manufacturer to anticipate breakdowns. That technology is a lot different from putting new fuel injector technology in a vehicle. It's a data conduit, and everyone in the company -- customer service teams, repair techs, marketing, product development -- wants a piece of this data flowing directly back from customers. The notion that one group such as marketing will own all this data doesn't compute.

Analytics becomes a product
Data analytics is becoming a customer-facing skill for IT organizations, not a back-office, get-back-to-you-with-an-answer function.

Take That implementation needs a complex integration engine that draws data from multiple information systems in different organizations, assesses that data, and delivers a customized report on which discounts the customer can get on a range of products offered by third parties.

Accenture recently conducted a digital business study that compares high-performing companies against the rest of their peers, and high-performing companies rank "getting the right information to the right people at the right time" as their No. 1 business objective for IT. Lower-performing companies rank cutting business costs as No. 1 and right info, right time as No. 4.

In digital business, the "right people" companies must get info to are customers. And the "right info" will come from many sources inside and outside the company, which creates complexity and drives the need for strong, central tech leadership.

Running a hybrid cloud is hard
Even aggressive predictions for cloud adoption leave a lot of technology in-house that IT must run and integrate.

In that Accenture study, high performers predict that by 2020, 59 percent of their applications still will fall under conventional app licensing and maintenance, 18 percent in a public cloud, and 22 percent in a private cloud. That's radical change. Today, 84 percent of applications are in that conventional model. That transition will eliminate some in-house IT jobs tied to running in-house apps, and it will shift some budgets outside of IT. But most apps will remain in-house, and, if anything, tying together in-house and cloud apps adds to complexity. Low-performing companies predict slightly lower cloud usage.

Someone's going to be in charge of connecting the in-house and cloud environments and keeping them running smoothly, and as the examples above suggest, the stakes are getting only higher for running that information engine effectively.

If you read my assurances as a love letter to the CIO, you're not a CIO. See, CIOs aren't actually worried about the "role of the CIO." They're too busy worrying about one CIO's career -- their own. The CIO will have a pivotal role at companies for a long time to come, thanks to the rising importance of customer-facing technology forces. Those same forces, however, will bring career ruin for an individual CIO who can't marshal them to drive company growth.

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