Are We Giving CIOs An Inferiority Complex? - InformationWeek

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IT Leadership // Team Building & Staffing
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Rob Preston
Rob Preston
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Are We Giving CIOs An Inferiority Complex?

CIOs need to be technical, without apology, just as chief medical officers need not apologize for their grounding in medicine.

Are people losing respect for the CIO profession, or have they just lost their perspective? While other C-level executives command authority and are lauded for IT savvy if they know how to buy a cloud service, CIOs are nitpicked for spending too much time on their core technology competency and not enough time parked in other parts of the business.

In a recent column, "Are The CIO And IT Organization Replaceable?" I wrote that CIOs need to form stronger bonds with their C-level peers and take on formal responsibilities outside of the IT organization. One former CIO, CEO and COO wrote to me to object. Why do other C-level execs think they can assume the IT function, he wrote, and why do CIOs appear to have an "inferiority complex" about their technical capabilities? The writer, Steven Poole, whose career spanned senior executive positions in the public and private sectors in Canada, raised other valid points.

Some clarifications are in order. CIOs need to be technical, without apology, just as chief medical officers need not apologize for their grounding in medicine. CIOs don't necessarily need a degree in computer science or engineering, but they must have experience managing and developing applications, systems, projects and architectures.

There are exceptions to this rule: the HR or customer service exec who steps in and runs a first-class IT organization. But those execs are usually placed in the CIO position to fix a dysfunctional organization, institute cost discipline, bring silos together or instill a customer focus. And then they're rotated out. Rarely does the nontechnical CIO thrive in that position long term.

But that doesn't mean CIOs should rest on their technical laurels either. While Poole noted that other chiefs (HR, marketing, finance, etc.) "are generally quite secure in their seat in the executive boardroom" without feeling pressure to move outside their core competencies, CIOs sit in a different place. Because they're building systems for sales, marketing, logistics and other departments, CIOs must understand those areas far better than the average exec. And don't think for a minute that other executives aren't called on to expand their expertise, and even move into positions outside of their core areas.

Consider the CFO position. In a 2005 report titled "The Activist CFO," CFO Research Services and Booz Allen Hamilton urged chief financial officers "to take on an expanded and increasingly activist role within their companies ... not just supporting the business with information and analysis, but also ensuring that the entire enterprise delivers on its commitments." The study went on to say that while the activist CFO "may sound a lot like a CEO, an overall leader of the enterprise and a super-line manager," he or she must remain committed to the core job: finance.

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Likewise, we're not asking "activist CIOs" to become superheroes, but we're urging them to get more experience in operational and customer-facing roles. Whether that experience requires formal stints in sales or procurement or manufacturing or customer service -- or just a more hands-on relationship with the people running those areas -- depends on the organization and executive.

When I recently asked one leading CIO (who came up through the technical ranks) what he's looking for in a successor, he immediately talked about breadth of experience, and not just in IT. "I would personally like to see more rotations through business roles than we have managed to date," he said. That's not because he has an inferiority complex about the importance of technical acumen. It's because he understands that when your position is intertwined with so many lines of business, it's essential to truly understand their processes, challenges and opportunities.

In the end, I don't think Poole's view is all that different from mine. "CIOs have a unique position because of their influence on information and business processes," he wrote. "Any CIO who only manages IT operations is clearly not contributing sufficiently at a C level. This is no different from the CFO who is really just an accountant or the [chief human resources officer] who is merely a recruiter."

Poole continued: "A good CIO knows how to leverage IT to enable the business in a manner that is evident to the executive team. The principle is the same for all C-level executives. CIOs simply need to take their seat at the C-level table."

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User Rank: Apprentice
11/8/2012 | 4:27:50 PM
re: Are We Giving CIOs An Inferiority Complex?
Ditto Steven Poole: "Any CIO who only manages IT operations is clearly not contributing sufficiently at a C level". Business leadership is about winning in the competitive marketplace. It takes a team operating on all cylinders to win. Because of the unique requirement of IT staff to innovate and/or turbo charge business processes, they must understand more than just technical solutions. They need to understand the business and what moves the needles on efficiency and effectiveness to beat the marketplace. Do this and the team wins and contributors will be recognized and valued!

Ken Roesler
Information Officer-General Motors Sales and Marketing-Retired
User Rank: Apprentice
11/6/2012 | 6:41:16 PM
re: Are We Giving CIOs An Inferiority Complex?
I'd suggest that there's a deeper underlying problem if the CIO sitting at the board is such a problem; it seems to me there's a much deeper communication and/or cooperation gap going on. Even if the CIO is unable to directly bring business value by being proactive, at the very least that business generally engages strategies that rely on critical technology enablers should mean that there's intrinsically a value in executive collaboration including a technology-aware (and as relevant to the company, meaning what THAT company's IT can do, can't do) partner.
User Rank: Apprentice
11/5/2012 | 7:21:54 PM
re: Are We Giving CIOs An Inferiority Complex?
RobPreston has hit the nail right on the head along with the author of this article. The CIO being the Chief Information Technology Officer must know enough about business operations as a whole, and be informed about latest technologies and how they can be leveraged within ones own organization to streamline processes, procedures, reduce LOE, which reduces cost. In many cases, sales, marketing, HR, and other representatives aren't going to be technologically update and/or savvy enough to understand how a new technology or different platform can benefit their operation. It is the CIO's job to understand the different aspects of the business and how and what to do to improve the way they function from a technological perspective to improve operational performance.
User Rank: Author
11/5/2012 | 6:36:29 PM
re: Are We Giving CIOs An Inferiority Complex?
Folks, I beg to differ. The "authority of the IT department" isn't what has caused "business problems." What has caused business problems is when the CIO and his/her IT department are too far removed from their company's broader business challenges and opportunities. To use the one commenter's football metaphor, imagine the wide receiver or even the lineman who isn't on the same playbook as the rest of the team. They need to be in sync. CIOs need to lead WITH their C-level colleagues, not just be told what to do.
User Rank: Strategist
11/5/2012 | 5:39:14 PM
re: Are We Giving CIOs An Inferiority Complex?
Gosh, I feel sorry for the poor CIO. Now that that is said, seriously IT is primarily a supporting role different than many others particularly on the operations side. But let's use a football analogy. The CIO can be seen as the wide receiver or tail back who will also fill in as a punt or kick return specialist fulfilling many supporting roles (as do CFO and HR). You won't see the quarterback, the kicker, a linebacker, or with a few exceptions a lineman do the same (these representing your operational VPs/CXO). Unfortunately, too many times a CIO is either an MBA or technically proficient and find themselves developing tunnel vision in their comfort zone.
User Rank: Ninja
11/5/2012 | 5:25:26 PM
re: Are We Giving CIOs An Inferiority Complex?
I'm not particularly impressed with the concept of the CIO as a "C" class officer. As with problems with CFO's making business decisions, CIO's are no more qualified. We had the rise of the CIO a nu ber of years ago, with them being put on the board. That was a bad decision. I see no evidence that they know enough about the business to be qualified to take part in those decisions. They are usually more of a stumbling block than an asset.

I understand that these business oriented computer publications are really here to push more authority for the IT department, as though that will help solve business problems. But really, doing that is what has caused business problems..
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