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The CIO job under a microscope at MIT Sloan CIO Symposium

Tactical and strategic, behind the scenes and front and center, IT control freak and innovation unleasher: The MIT Sloan CIO Symposium explores the paradox of the CIO job.

As work is increasingly done on a digital conveyor belt, the business world may stop asking what a chief information officer is, or wondering how that person earns a seat at the proverbial table. The stale joke of CIO standing forcareer is over will quit making the rounds.

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But at this week's MIT Sloan CIO Symposium, the CIO job -- what CEOs are looking for in a CIO, how to become a CIO, the difference between a CIO and a chief technology officer or chief operating officer -- was under the microscope. And after a day's worth of seminars, it is still far from a tidy classification. As the sessions made clear, the CIO job is paradoxical: strategic and operational, behind the scenes yet horribly front and center when IT goes wrong. IT tools take time to implement yet are constantly changing. The systems cost a fortune, yet have a high defect rate. As a business enabler, the CIO is responsible for both implementing the information systems that run the business operations -- a company's "sacred transactions," as one expert put it -- and devising the information strategy that confers competitive advantage.

Bill Brown, CIO at Boston-based Iron Mountain Inc. said one of the biggest challenges of the CIO job is "the wide swings between the need for the strategic and the tactical." An effective CIO is required to be both inspiring innovator and able practitioner, he said, equipped to show the business how to use its information and, "by the way," still responsible for snafus in an important videoconference. "That's the real key -- being able to balance both of those worlds," Brown said.

For James McGlennon, CIO at Liberty Mutual Group Inc., a big part of the CIO role at the Boston-based property and casualty insurance provider is striking a balance between "process" -- insisting on the standards that ensure smooth IT operations -- and understanding IT's role in achieving business results. "Sometimes, I think IT has been its own worst enemy," he said. IT tends to take mechanisms like the Information Technology Infrastructure Library and make them "into the Bible of how we do our work," he added. As the newly appointed CIO at Liberty Mutual, McGlennon has worked at finding the right mixture of "doing the right thing, and at the same time taking ownership of the outcomes of what we do."

Anne Margulies, CIO of the commonwealth of Massachusetts, refers to herself as an "accidental CIO." She began her career in systems support and marketing at AT&T and went on to build a career in academia, serving as executive director of MIT OpenCourseWare, the university's initiative for offering the teaching materials of its curriculum available for free over the Internet. She said CIOs are "victims of our own success," now required like the other C-level executives to "balance the short term and the long term." Solid operations are the "table stakes," without which CIOs "will not be able to have much strategic input," she said. Her first step in developing a strategic IT plan for Massachusetts is to consolidate the commonwealth's massively decentralized and complex IT operations on a stable platform. "You first have to standardize to innovate," Margulies said .

Exploring the gender divide in regards to CIO job

The paradox of the CIO role -- and the relation between stable platforms and innovation -- was apparent even during the academic panel at the symposium, as leading intellectuals in information management and innovation argued about the future of the IT organization. In a gender role reversal, the two male professors argued that rather than focusing on controlling IT, or even automating processes, CIOs should work at understanding how their companies' customers think and feel. Frank Moss, founder of Tivoli systems and now director of the MIT Media Lab, said CIOs should focus on "how to make employees more creative."

Sometimes I think IT has been its own worst enemy.
James McGlennon
CIOLiberty Mutual Group Inc.

Margulies and Jeanne Ross, director and principal research scientist at the MIT Sloan's Center for Information Systems Research, argued that stable platforms and controlled processes -- engineered and overseen by the CIO -- are the foundation of creativity. Ross said IT professionals need to look for opportunities to innovate and use new media. "But I will argue that the way we get the freedom to do that is to have some underlying control, and we have to be very, very clear about the set of things we are going to control," she said. "Let's build the platform, and that should give us the freedom to innovate, and to release people."

One acronym CIOs probably won't be tagged with is HiPPO, or the "highest-paid person's opinion," said Erik Brynjolfsson, director of the MIT Center for Digital Business. That's because CIOs, even when highly paid, don't base decisions on just opinions. The CIO job is data-driven. And as business decisions become more data-driven, Brynjolfsson noted, the HiPPO is going the way of the dinosaur.

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

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