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Commentary

Down To Business: The Death Of The CIO (And Other Cautionary Tales)

The position has never been more critical, but the days are numbered for those execs who act like it's still 1990 ... or even 2006.
Remember the stock market experts who wrote books years ago predicting the Dow would surpass 30,000, 36,000, 40,000 in no time? Better for them that you don't remember. As a customer reviewer on Amazon.com recently remarked about one of those blowhards: "At least I'm reassured that this guy's probably now living in a cardboard box under an overpass, and sleeping in a polyester leisure suit that he ripped off from the Salvation Army."

If you're going to venture over the top with your predictions, it pays to stay within the same ZIP code of reality. Ask Nicholas Carr, whose "IT Doesn't Matter" article in the May 2003 issue of the Harvard Business Review took on the less muscular title Does IT Matter? when he expanded it for a book. Carr's still taken seriously as an author and keynote speaker because he's been willing to temper his controversial positions on a variety of technology subjects--from cloud computing to the digital enterprise--when evidence has suggested the underlying issues aren't so black and white.

Another recent target of the punditry is the CIO profession. "The CIO is dead," proclaims Ian Campbell, CEO of Nucleus Research. "CIO: Dead In 5 years," blares the headline of a blog post by John Qualls, CEO of an Indiana-based infrastructure service provider. "Nobody Needs A Chief Information Officer," reads another headline, this one on a blog by Colin Beveridge, a former U.K. IT director and now a management troubleshooter and professional provocateur.

All this chatter makes for lively blogs and columns, even if most of the pundits end up pulling back from their shock statements. But there's also some truth underneath the bluster. Business technology pros, academics, consultants, analysts, and others see a confluence of events and trends that are either marginalizing CIOs or subjecting them to intense scrutiny like never before.

CIOs are under the gun financially, particularly as more of them report to CFOs rather than CEOs and as the credit crisis forces the biggest corporate reexamination of the business value of technology since the dot-com bust. CIOs are less central to technology purchasing than they used to be, as line-of-business owners and end users bring in their own devices and apps, flouting or circumventing central IT. CIOs' time and budgets continue to be overwhelmed by legacy systems, at a time when CEOs are demanding that investments drive growth. Outsourcing, cloud computing, and other new technology-delivery models are taking some IT development and control out of the CIO's hands.

Now, the CIO profession is anything but dead for those eager to take on the above challenges. In fact, the demands of globalization and business reinvention will elevate the sharpest CIOs to business process owners, master integrators, and ultimately trusted innovators. The CIO position has never--never--been more critical.

But the days are numbered for those business technology execs who cling to the old "reductionist" IT model, where business processes were crammed into the capabilities of a system (think ERP), Beveridge maintains. That model is incompatible with today's fast-changing global business conditions and priorities. "Ambiguity, variety, complexity: These are concepts alien to most people who work in IT," Beveridge says, arguing that most IT pros will be herded into more of a business support function. "IT's not the business, no matter how much we think it is."

I don't buy that part of Beveridge's analysis. He's dead wrong if he thinks CIOs and their people can't get with the evolving business program. But he's right if he's implying that those who don't will be relegated to lesser roles--or die off, to use the pundits' vernacular.

Even if you're not a CIO and don't aspire to become one, understand that the stature and effectiveness of that position pervades the entire business technology organization. So pay attention.

Rob Preston,
VP and Editor in Chief
[email protected]

To find out more about Rob Preston, please visit his page.