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People in CIO positions should stay off this list

Today, customers rule -- CIOs who don't submit put their careers at risk. Analyst Bobby Cameron details five binds that spell doom for CIO positions.

It takes a lot for a list to grab me. In the Internet blur of read-this-or-else language, most lists -- no matter how urgently titled -- just highjack valuable time. "CIOs' Top Five Career-Ending Digital Transformation Challenges," by Forrester Research analyst Bobby Cameron, is an exception.

Cameron's blunt language is meant to underscore just how dire the situation is for CIOs in today's business environment.

"There's a lot of immaturity in CIOs that's just got to go," Cameron said in a telephone interview. Many are stuck in the past, he said, centered on internal operations. In the so-called age of the customer, though, when buyers wield more power than ever before, CIO positions must focus on technology that serves those buyers -- and keeps them coming back.

But right now, Cameron said, fully two-thirds to three-quarters of CIOs are at risk of falling into one or more of these five career-ending predicaments:

Bobby CameronBobby Cameron

1. They're not trusted.

2. They can't inspire meaningful change.

3. They're stuck in technical debtor's prison.

4. They think small.

5. They aren't customer-obsessed.

The no-hit list

Let's take them one by one, starting with the issue of trust. The main requirement of CIO positions is to deliver and safeguard the IT systems that keep businesses running; being perceived as untrustworthy is unthinkable for CIOs. Yet, if their IT organizations have a history of failures in delivering bread-and-butter service, the business side is going to have a hard time trusting the CIO to deliver the more advanced capabilities that can provide a competitive advantage, such as big data analytics or cloud computing.

A CIO also won't be trusted, Cameron explained in the report, if the IT department doesn't build systems that are "end-to-end" -- integrated into all the other applications a business uses on a daily basis. At Home Depot, Cameron told me, a checkout clerk can ring you up, of course, but he can also let you know about a sale the store is having that day or check on the availability of another item you might need.

"All of a sudden it's not a point-of-sale transaction," he said. "I'm now invoking marketing systems, bundling systems, inventory systems, shipping." Integrating these systems and making the data available to that checkout person is how IT organizations help their companies compete for today's customers.

There's a lot of immaturity in CIOs that's just got to go.
Bobby Cameronanalyst, Forrester Research

By inspiring meaningful change, Cameron meant using one's CIO position to pave the path to becoming a full-fledged digital business -- making all the necessary technology changes your customers are demanding and doing it fast. But it's largely a cultural puzzle for IT, Cameron wrote, and one of the missing pieces for many CIOs remains communicating in a language the business side understands. In his report, Cameron quoted a CIO at a U.S. defense agency: "We need to enhance the competencies that we have as humans -- using words that the others understand. But sometimes the best IT guys are the ones you want to keep locked in a room and let them out only when the coast is clear."

To work well with the business, IT needs to keep business goals top of mind -- and drop the tech speak.

Technical debtor's prison doesn't sound like a particularly nice place to spend 40 or more hours a week in -- so stay out, Cameron advised. It's not that old technology alone will put you there -- some old systems can in fact help you build a digital business. But if outmoded systems are holding you back, that's when you should bust the joint.

Oil companies should take the hint, Cameron said. Many still use IBM 3270 computer terminals, which look at home in 1980s James Bond films but not in modern organizations.

"I've had CIOs from oil and gas recently sit down and tell me, 'Oh, it's fine for us; we don't need anything else. We don't want to pay to upgrade.'"

Though starting small in IT is generally considered a good thing, thinking small can spell doom for CIO positions, Cameron wrote. Popular technologies today shouldn't be implemented as replacements for something that's broken but rather as pieces of your emerging digital business. One way out of the fix is by funding the business outcome you're targeting, not the project.

Not being customer-obsessed is Cameron's final career killer, but it overlaps all the others. Customers are the reason the CIO position is under fire in the first place. They're pushing the buttons, so CIOs must cater to them. That means having one, integrated view of all customers. It means having proper data governance policies and procedures. And it means using customer-focused performance metrics in IT as well as in sales and customer service.

CIO career Rx

Cameron said the first step for CIOs is simple: Recognize the need to change. Businesses that embrace change innovate and create new opportunities. He gave an example from the industrial sector: Manufacturer Timken Bearings put sensors in its roller bearings that would let a customer know when they were about to collapse. Those sensors now phone home, and Timken does maintenance and repair on equipment fitted with the bearings.

"It's a brand new business, and they're making a lot of money at it," Cameron said.

Are there really CIOs who are guilty of all five items on Cameron's career-ending list? He cited the example of a CIO from a life insurance company -- "the most Luddite sector in the universe" -- who got a directive from a new CEO to "go digital." Sure, she told him.

"And then she calls me in and says, 'What did our CEO mean?' She's probably not very long for this world," he said with a sad chuckle. "And that's not uncommon. It's just the way it is."

Let us know what you think of the story; email Jason Sparapani, features writer, or find him on Twitter @jmsparapani.

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