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The Inexorable Rise Of The New CIO

Anyone who thinks the changing role of the CIO is cyclical is asleep at the wheel -- or worse.
The founder of my company once had to push aside an editor in chief who was the first employee the company ever had. Either unable or unwilling--and my bet is unable--to understand why he was being reassigned, the young employee pleaded for another chance, promising to do anything and everything necessary to deliver what was needed. And as much as our founder loved that young man, the founder stuck to his guns.

"It's not a matter of effort," he said. "Let me put it this way: Your specialty is classical music, but what we need is jazz."

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That anecdote has run through my head many times in the past year with the surfacing of more and more similarly anecdotal evidence regarding the CIO career. And when enough anecdotes pile up, the story line shifts from interesting and incidental to unmistakable and very real. Any CIO or other business executive who thinks this is merely a cyclical incident that will swing with the pendulum back to "normal" in a few months is either (a) asleep at the wheel, (b) intentionally but career-threateningly delusional, (c) living in a parallel universe where the year is 1994, or (d) simply nuts.

The real situation is spelled out clearly and forcefully by my colleague John Soat in the lead piece of this special report, and here's a quick recap of the key points:

• CIOs are questioning their roles, and this is great. Every employee in every company in every industry must be doing this--why not CIOs?

• The CIO is in an unprecedented position to become the leader in business-process transformation and optimization.

• Business units have become fully cognizant of the business value of technology--great CIOs can use this widespread awareness and advocacy to create even greater value for the company and its customers.

• Everyone recognizes the position is about business success and leadership and transformation, not about technology--isn't this a big step forward?

• CIOs need to exercise influence rather than control, refocusing the IT culture to home in on business value, better alternatives, and rapid change.

• CIOs need to embrace unstructured innovation and find ways to make it play nice with existing architecture, rather than fighting new ideas.

Sounds great, right? I mean, who could deny that those challenges all roll up to be an incredibly dynamic, exciting, high-value job? But as a sportswriter once wrote about a slow-footed catcher who was thrown out trying to steal second base, "He had larceny in his heart, but lead in his feet."

That is the issue with many companies and many CIOs today: They play classical when the company needs jazz. They want to steal second to give their team an advantage, but they don't have the tools to make it. In too many situations, the person who was so right for the job in the recent past--and whose skills were so right at the time--is now woefully out of place and out of touch. I don't doubt for a second that these mismatched--or overmatched--IT execs are putting forth almost superhuman efforts to do what's needed, and are doing the very best job they can possibly do. But if effort and desire were all that counted, I'd have had a 20-year career as a professional basketball player.

My guess is that about one-third of today's CIOs can't meet the business demands and skill set and mental outlook and interpersonal skills demanded by that position in the global, consumer-driven economy here at the dawn of 2008. These mismatches are occurring at a time when IT projects and expenditures and priorities and leadership are all being called into question, and quite rightly so. And while these transformative times are gut-wrenching for many individuals who are great at many things but not at what the New CIO must do, these turbulent times also offer juicy opportunities for companies to instill new leadership optimized for the times and the challenges of 2008 and beyond.

As this happens, we will indeed experience The Disappearing CIO, but it will be the disappearance of those whose time has passed. But in parallel, we'll see another and quite different phenomenon: The Rise of the New CIO, eager to tackle all the challenges outlined above. And perfectly fluent in and comfortable with either jazz or classical.

Bob Evans,
Senior VP/Editorial Director
[email protected]

To find out more about Bob Evans, please visit his page.

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The Evolution Of The CIO