Experts: CIO moving more into business, process optimization

The role of the CIO was under the microscope at the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium, where industry executives and academics offered scenarios that bring CIOs deeper into the business.

What's in a name? If the role of the CIO changes, will the title change, too?

At the sixth annual MIT Sloan CIO Symposium yesterday, CIO aliases came tripping off the panelists' tongues. Alan Trefler, CEO at Pegasystems Inc., the Cambridge, Mass.-based business process management software provider, said he thought the "I" in CIO was indicative of one big problem with IT these days. Information is historical, about memory, about what happened, Trefler said. The CIO needs to become the "process optimization person" (a C-POP?, hopefully not a CPOO!), someone who can change the fabric of how companies do business.

Technology writer Wade Roush said what companies really need is a Chief Simplicity Officer, someone who can commoditize IT services that offer no competitive advantage and free up IT staff for business projects. Indeed, as utility computing moves to the cloud, CIOs will spend less time running IT and focus instead on figuring out how IT can run the business.

Thomas Malone, the Patrick J. McGovern Professor of Management at MIT Sloan, suggested that CIOs will become Chief Organizational Officers. That prompted Jeanne Ross, director of the school's Center for Information Systems Research, to say the CIO title should be redubbed Strategy Execution Officer, not to be confused with another SEO (search engine optimization).

As these attempts at renaming imply, the role of the CIO was under the microscope at the symposium, which was themed "Sustaining CIO Leadership in a Changing Economy." Three keynotes -- the CEO panel, the academic panel and the CIO panel -- explored what organizations need from CIOs in these challenging times and where IT should be headed.

If there was a common thread to the two hours of talk, it was that CIOs must figure out how to optimize the business through IT, a twist on the perennial call for IT and business alignment. But rather than simply scrambling to carry out business orders on time and on budget, the CIO of the future -- by whatever name -- should focus on using data to competitive advantage.

CIO as Process Optimization Person

Trefler, whose Pegasystems is in the business process management (BPM) business, said CIOs should not be thinking about managing business processes or about functioning as the Chief Information Officer -- they should start thinking about business process automation.

I think there is an opportunity for CIOs … to become not just technology officers but organizational officers.

Thomas Malone, professor, MIT Sloan School of Management

"Process automation breaks down the walls between business and IT," he said. That is not to suggest that business people just "take IT over," but that IT's role lies in creating flexible, "game-changing" systems -- in 60-, 90-, 120-day windows. As a result, CEOs and heads of operation would come to think of CIOs as strategic partners.

"The net effect of this is it moves the information organization -- it moves the CIO into a role where they are not only strategically oriented but execution oriented," Trefler said, adding that about "80% of the stuff" that goes on in IT is "just crap."

"The reality is that information is historical, information is memory, information is about generally what happened. If you're going to move strategically, you have to move from information into operations," he said.

Chief Simplicity Officer

Joseph Alsop, co-founder and former CEO of Progress Software Corp., concurred with panel moderator Roush that CIOs need to be Chief Simplicity Officers. The fact that companies on average spend 5% of revenue on IT is not a problem, Alsop said, but what is a problem is that two-thirds of the spend goes to keeping the lights on. But help in reducing that may be on the way in the form of cloud computing -- aka time-sharing, application service provider (ASP), Software as a Service models of renting applications.

Chief Organizational Officer; Strategy Execution Officer

How cloud computing will change the role of the CIO also came up during the academic panel of MIT professors on the future of IT. Malone wondered what happens if all computing moves to the cloud and CIOs don't need to run the data center.

"What I think is left for the CIO to do is to figure out how to use IT," Malone said. As IT becomes embedded in the businesses, the question may be how does IT affect the organization, or "what new ways to work become possible because of IT," Malone said. "I think there is an opportunity -- not one that all CIOs will pick up -- for CIOs … to become not just technology officers, but organizational officers."

That led Ross to suggest Strategy Execution Officer, a moniker promulgated in a recent a article in The Wall Street Journal. "It has a nice ring, SEO, and I do think that is where the CIO role is going," she said.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer.

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