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CEOs: CIOs earn seat at the table by creating competitive advantage

CEOs — just who do they think CIOs are? Who do they want you to be?

Mobile may be on your mind. Perhaps you have your head in the cloud. That’s all well, good and important to the CEO, as long as you can show you’re adding value to the business and creating competitive advantage.

The theme of MIT Sloan’s 9th Annual CIO Symposium, held Tuesday in Cambridge, Mass., was “Piloting the Untethered Enterprise.” But the strong message coming from a panel of CEOs to CIOs was to make sure you’re firmly entrenched in the business — and all the better if that spot is between the business and the consumer. And, oh yes, that magical word everyone likes to invoke — innovation — came up a lot in association with the CEO’s preferred CIO.

It’s crucial that CIOs have a firm handle on new technologies and delivery systems. Object Management Group Inc. chairman and CEO Richard Soley pointed out that, as enterprises transition into this untethered age, the CIO has to be there to solve all the standard problems — security, for example — for the new wave. But if IT leaders stop there, so might their careers.

“What’s important is, are they involved in the CXO suite’s informal discussions and where the company is going strategically? And are they part of the decision of where the company is going strategically?” Soley said, adding that he likes the idea of CIO standing for chief innovation officer. “Standards are the basis for innovation, and that’s the opportunity for the CIO: to bring in standards both global and local and make changes to the organization.”

Jeffrey Markley, CEO at Boston-based Markley Group Inc., drew a comparison between the CIO and another C-suite member: the CFO. If a CFO functions as “just an accountant,” what does that do for the business? He’s doing his job, a job that needs to be done, but adds no unique value. What CIOs do is critical, but if they stick to the strict definition of the role, they’re going nowhere.

“It’s really up to the individual. We know people in this room who’ve gone from CIOs to chief innovation officers, people who are making changes in the organization,” Markley said. “I want to surround myself with brilliant people who are going to make our company stronger, better and get us into new opportunities and make our customers grow and be happy and want to do business with us.”

Scott Griffith, chairman and CEO at Zipcar Inc., based in Cambridge, Mass., got specific with his expectations. He used his own company as an example of why it’s imperative for the CIO or IT leader to have a seat at the C-suite table. With big-name rental companies Hertz and Avis poised to assert themselves in Zipcar’s business space, information is Zipcar’s biggest weapon in keeping its competitive advantage.

“We know more about our customer than anybody that’s going to enter this business. We did 4 million reservations last year, and shame on us if we didn’t mine all of the information out of those reservations and figure out how to become a better company and drive a better experience and be more profitable,” Griffith said. “Information is integral to all that. [The CIO role is] a seat-at-the-table job, and every company should be picking that up. The top information job is going to be more strategic.”

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