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Is the CIO job stretched to the breaking point?

The job of the CIO has always been a big topic for us on SearchCIO. Over the years we’ve kept close tabs on what the CIO job entails and read the tea leaves on where it is headed, examining, among other parameters: reporting structures (Remember when it was considered the kiss of death to report to the CFO?); salaries; bonuses; C-suite alliances (e.g, the current notion that CMOs and CIOs should be best friends); potential rivals for the top IT job (chief data officer, chief digital officer); career blunders (talking about uptime using the numeral 9).

In recent months, chatter about the role of the CIO has reached fever pitch, and not just in industry publications like ours where you’d expect such discussions but in the mainstream business press as well. I think this is because it has dawned on many of us how really difficult (maybe impossible?) the role of chief information officer has become. The traditional purview of the CIO — to ensure reliable, secure, efficient and cost-effective IT systems — is still a requirement of the job (“table stakes,” as the hotshot CIOs like to say), but with the digitization of businesses (and that’s every business, from the corner pizza shop to the industry giants) many new responsibilities now come with the job. How are CIOs dealing with their ever-expanding set of duties?

Bi-modal IT

One trend that IT consultancy Gartner Inc. is seeing is an approach it’s dubbed bi-modal IT: on the one side, the safe, industrialized IT that delivers services and enables the business; and on the other, the fast, experimental, exploratory IT that helps the business compete in the digital domain.

“More and more of our clients are moving in that direction,” Dave Aron, a Gartner fellow and VP specializing in IT strategy, told me.

Under this structure, the CIO typically has put in place a deputy of IT. “The title very much varies, but what we’re talking about is a chief operating officer of IT. And the relationship is very much like a CEO-COO relationship,” Aron said. The CIO is freed up to look at digital business and the COO of IT, or deputy, “runs everything, the whole show, day to day.”

In Gartner’s recent CIO survey of some 2800 IT leaders, 47% said they have that “kind of COO under them,” Aron said, but added that the survey result strikes him as high. “Anecdotally, I feel like it’s a smaller number, maybe a third of CIOs who have this arrangement,” he said.

Three components of the digital CIO role

So what does the digital CIO actually do? Gartner breaks the role down into three components: outside-in thinking; inside-out thinking; and IT integration.

Outside-in: In this role, the digital CIO is not thinking about the current business, Aron said, but about what is happening in the digital world and the risks and opportunities it represents for the business. This is the kind of thinking that often results in “very unusual business extensions,” Aron said, such as mobile phone operators becoming banks, or drugstore chains becoming large healthcare providers. In this aspect of their jobs, digital CIOs might ponder, for example, what Bitcoin means for financial transactions or 3-D printing means for supply chains.

Inside-out: While these digital CIOs are busy figuring out where the digital world is taking their companies, they simultaneously must be thinking about what this digital evolution means for their companies’ internal capabilities. Aron gave me the example of a large bank whose infrastructure was designed for a few million customers who used to visit their branch banks maybe once a month to conduct business. Today, any one of those millions could be transacting with their bank 10 times a day from their smart phones. Part of accommodating this new business paradigm may involve hiring for new skill sets, for example, and using the cloud and other new IT infrastructure, Aron said. Digital CIOs need to be on top of this.

Digital integration role: “This is making sure that as the world gets digital, and we are using all sorts of omnichannels, we don’t make a big mess,” Aron said.

Beware the CSO (chief strategy officer)

For the record, I asked Aron which of these three aspects of the new CIO job are today’s CIOs best prepared for. Not surprisingly, he said the second and third aspects of the role (inside-out and integration) are probably more in the traditional CIO’s wheelhouse than that “outside-in” role.

“That aspect of the role feels more like an extension of the chief strategy officer role than the CIO role,” Aron said.

My questions for you: Have you hired a deputy CIO? Do you consider yourself a digital CIO?

Let me know — email me or find me on Twitter @ltucci.

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This is a great post. The CIO is now the one enabling and driving business strategy. Business strategy drives IT. This means that CIO can also assume the role of Chief Strategy Officer. Otherwise he may be replaced by more business savvy officers in the organization.
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