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Executives debate need for the CIO title

What's in a name? A panel of executives at the recent ASAE Technology Conference debated the need for the CIO title and all it entails (or doesn't).

When it comes to appointing an organization's IT strategy leader, how important is it to dub that person the CIO? In the absence of a CIO title, does the title of IT director carry the same weight?

Technology experts debated these questions and more during the recent "CEO/CIO Marriage Proposal" panel at the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) Technology Conference in Washington, D.C.

The panel included the following experts:

  • Prabhash Shrestha, CIO, Association of Fundraising Professionals
  • Pamela Donahoo, executive director, American Mensa Ltd.
  • Michael O'Brien, strategic consultant, O'Brien Consulting
  • Mike Guerrieri, information systems director, American Speech-Language-Hearing Association
  • Gretchen Steenstra, senior consultant of technology management, DelCor Technology Solutions
  • Kyle Vickers, CIO, National Quality Forum

When the panel was asked, "How important is it to have the title of CIO?" responses ran the gamut from "vital" to "as long as I'm respected, it doesn't really matter."

Mike Guerrieri: "Mainly, our CEO doesn't like the use of the word chief; I think the most important thing is, 'Does my opinion matter?' and 'Am I a respected leader in the organization?' Aside from that, I don't care what they call me. A name is a name. [That said], you shouldn't have a CIO title unless it's clear the person is impacting the organization with his or her expertise in technology."

Prabhash ShresthaPrabhash Shrestha

Prabhash Shrestha: "The title of the CIO is not a perception anymore. It really is a functional title. Let's say we are working with partners and trying to develop new relationships. To be able to communicate with the C-suite on the other side, it becomes a new conversation -- a completely different ball game -- when the CIO title is attached. But it all depends on the maturity level of the organization and the importance of IT to that organization. To all the CEOs out there, please have a discussion with your IT leaders! Are they CIO material?"

Kyle Vickers: "How would the CFOs feel if they were just directors of finance? There is something that goes with the 'chief' title. I've had opportunities to go to larger organizations, but they were a 'director' title. There is a direction and maturity that comes with the CIO title. There is also then a certain responsibility put on those with that title."

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Michael O'Brien: "If you want to recruit qualified people, you need to give them the title. A lot of people won't even go for a director-level title."

Gretchen Steenstra: "In order to make the 'I' in IT matter, you need a catalyst to transition from tactical to strategic, and that can be the CIO title."

Should the CIO title assume technical expertise?

The panel discussed whether it was important for people with the CIO title to have a diverse technical background. For example, should CIOs be able to fix the Microsoft Exchange Server if they had the password, and is that a necessity?

Guerrieri: "It's most critical that you are a leader of IT people; they can see through BS more than anyone. So if you're coming from the marketing department and you're trying to tell them how to run IT, it would be a hard sell. You need to be seen as credible and knowledgeable in IT to be able to lead that group of people."

Gretchen SteenstraGretchen Steenstra

Steenstra: "If you're the CIO and you're way too technical to be able to collaborate with the CEO, that's a concern. As the CIO, you are Switzerland. You need to be able to speak generally enough to be able to speak to the entire organization, but also have the technology chops so your IT people know you're representing them well."

O'Brien: "Ask the question a different way: How important is it that a CFO knows finance? Those other C-suite titles are all strategic roles as well, but to pose this same type of question to them is ridiculous. … I don't know how you innovate without technology, and I don't know how you innovate without a person who knows technology."

How does an organization know when it needs to hire a CIO?

Assuming the CIO title is worth the clout it confers, how does an organization know when it's time to install a CIO in its C-suite? Organizational size and changing business needs are both factors, the panelists said.

Kylie VickersKylie Vickers

Vickers: "This is the second time I've been brought in as a startup CIO. It comes down to organizational size and how important that role is to them."

Shrestha: "Organizations need to look at what the cost is of not having a CIO. What could this person change?"

Steenstra: "When an organization matures, it can get lost in the minutiae. It needs someone to help facilitate discussion and open communication across the organization, connect the dots and put those pieces together."

Pamela Donahoo: "As your business model changes and as you find you're doing more, the move from having an IT director to having a CIO is key for success."

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Essential Guide

Careers in information technology: A CIO guide to getting ahead in IT
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