The Great CIO Debate

Is the role of the CIO to be an innovator or a custodian? Two leading CIOs share advice on how to become the innovation champion in your company.
10 CIOs: Career Decisions I'd Do Over
10 CIOs: Career Decisions I'd Do Over
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No, not the one that took place in Denver. I'm talking about the great CIO debate. Is the role of the CIO to be an innovator or a custodian of the IT infrastructure? While the desire is be the champion of innovation, the reality is that CIOs and the IT department are often measured and paid for, as they say, "doing more with less."

This conundrum between what tech execs want to be and where they find themselves on the org chart was reinforced to me during a couple of days at the Interop show in New York. I was fortunate to be doing onstage interviews with two CIOs who are firmly in the innovative camp. Arthur Tisi, CIO of Fairway Markets, and Greg Smith, CIO of Pew Charitable Trusts, both "get it" when it comes to expressing the urgency CIOs need to feel as mobile, social, big data, and the oft-mentioned cloud computing agendas unfold in their companies and their competitor's companies. Becoming complacent as budget dollars wander off into other departments, waiting for technology to settle down before acting, or taking refuge in spreadsheets and internal committee meetings is a career limiting (maybe ending) attitude.

[ More to think about. Read Why Business Doesn't Look To IT For Innovation. ]

But even Arthur Tisi (who also did a stint as CIO at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and has produced music with some of the icons of rock) said keeping the lights on is one of the required tasks of the CIO. Fortunately, as Greg Smith noted, technologies such as cloud computing (in all its forms of private, hybrid and public) is making that infrastructure management easier. As MIT Professor Erik Brynjolfsson pointed out during the recent InformationWeek 500 conference, the inexorable rise in processing power for microchips may soon make such futuristic ideas as self-healing and self-managing systems a reality. The trick for CIOs is to lead the way in breaking the back of the typical 80% of the tech budget that goes into system maintenance and use those dollars for the really important projects.

And what are those projects? Smith puts mobility at the top of the list. Thinking mobile first in your organization means a lot more than simply pushing email or standard apps onto mobile devices. Data security in a mobile environment, business applications that are as user friendly and powerful as consumer applications, and rethinking what your company would look like if you were starting it from scratch with mobile as the first priority are all part of the mobile-first strategy.

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Leveraging instead of grousing about the rising power and budget dollars of the CMO should also be at the top of your priority list, argues Tisi. The rise of digital marketing that can analyze, make offers, and engage customers with strong digital ties is changing the economy, companies, and can make the CIO into a company rockstar. The CMO might know what he or she wants to accomplish in the marketing activities, but the CIO can turn those wants into services through the use of business intelligence, big data mining, and digital services that are beyond the CMOs technology grasp.

In the big debate around the future role of the CIO, the best solution may be compromise. Take the needed, but underappreciated and costly activities that are eating up the tech budget and leverage the cloud in all its forms to cut those costs. Take those cost savings and use them to become the innovation champion in your company.

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