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Commentary

Architect, Sure, But Of What?

The CIO is generally thought of as an architect -- traditionally of a company's IT structure and strategy and, increasingly, potentially, of a company's overall business processes. However, not everyone, it seems, is willing to make the leap to the CIO-as-process-guru hypothesis.
The CIO is generally thought of as an architect -- traditionally of a company's IT structure and strategy and, increasingly, potentially, of a company's overall business processes. However, not everyone, it seems, is willing to make the leap to the CIO-as-process-guru hypothesis.At a panel discussion among academics at last week's MIT Sloan CIO Symposium, the twin subjects of IT governance and the future role of the CIO came up and it made for an interesting exchange, with some verbal fireworks at the end.

The panel was moderated by Michael Schrage, former co-chairman of the MIT Media Lab and author of the book Serious Play: How the World's Best Companies Simulate to Innovate, and had as its theme, "Innovation + Cost Leadership." It featured several prominent MIT-oriented management experts, among them Michael Cusumano, a management professor in MIT's Sloan School and author of several books on the software industry, and Tom Malone, Sloan School professor and author most recently of The Future Of Work.

Cusumano led a lot of the early discussion about consolidation in the software industry and changing software models. He also talked about the "tremendous impact" to companies from embracing a high degree of "IT savviness." His most prominent example was convenience-store chain 7-Eleven, which, by its embrace of IT, facilitates an impressive turnover in inventory: a 70% new product rate per store per year, according to Cusumano. He also talked about the need for "re-engineering the business process before investing in IT," and the importance of governance in ensuring IT's effectiveness. "The governance models are really the hard part to get right," he said.

The most interesting exchange occurred near the end of the panel. The discussion about IT governance led to a discussion about centralization versus decentralization, most panelists arguing for a decentralization of IT control -- except for Cusumano. Panelist Malone conceded that there are "absolutely cases where central control is a good thing," but that "many more things than we think possibly can and should be decentralized."

That led to this exchange:

Malone: "One of the most interesting opportunities for the CIO today is to move from a technology architect to a process architect."

Cusumano: "I would not trust the CIO to re-architect the organization."

Malone: "Does it depend on the who the CIO is?"

Cusumano: "No, I don't think it does."

Ouch! What do you think? Perhaps more importantly, what does your CEO, CFO, COO think? Is the CIO the right person to put in charge of architecting -- or re-architecting -- the company's business processes? If so, why? If not, why not? Let me know.