The Unified CIO

October 31, 2012 Appirio

By Glenn Weinstein (@glennweinstein)

The Wall Street Journal published a piece recently by my colleague Narinder Singh, arguing that the traditional CIO role should be “decomposed” into two separate jobs: a “technology” person, and a “business productivity” person. The former would focus on “cost reduction and maintenance of service levels”; the latter would then be freed up to drive “demonstrable business impact.” 

I acknowledge the appeal of the idea. Who wouldn’t want to shed the more mundane aspects of their job? But actually relieving CIOs of responsibility for core technology would be counter-productive for many of the reasons mentioned below. Narinder and I have had many discussions on this topic over the last few months, and he encouraged me to lay out my argument here as a counterpart to his article. So here goes.

  • You Need Power. The essential purpose of the CIO role is to use technology to deliver business value, typically in the form of information flow. By removing ownership of the technology, you deprive the CIO of the power base they need to deliver. 
  • You Need Accountability.  Without oversight of the technology, the CIO would lose an important check-and-balance that moderates the temptation to make grandiose promises without having realistic plans to deliver. Unfortunately too many business leaders underestimate the complexity of getting technology to actually work; we rely on the CIO as a reality check.
  • You Need (Public) Cloud. The largest reason CIOs and their IT departments continue to commit around 70 percent of resources to “run” activities (operations, maintenance, keeping the lights on) is because they are so infrastructure-intensive.  By largely shifting responsibility for servers (hardware, operating systems, networking, application software) to public cloud providers, CIOs can flip the model, and commit 70 percent of resources to “build” and “innovate” activities. This is the right way to free up the CIO’s time to focus on innovation. Splitting the CIO role is a noble but, in my opinion, misguided answer to this problem.
  • Execution Matters. The decomposition idea implicitly relegates the overseer of “commoditized technology” to a secondary role. But day-to-day service is what employees and customers actually see from IT. All the innovative ideas in the world are worthless without the ability to execute and deliver them to the end user, every day. At the C-level, you have to deliver both big ideas, and actual execution.

A good CIO should focus a large portion of their time and energy on differentiation, and improving business productivity. And they can augment these efforts with strategy consultants, innovation teams, pilot projects, and industry surveys. But this can’t be the full definition of the job. Ultimately, “idea people” need to meet up with “execution people.” And the CIO cannot afford to camp with just the “idea people” – their key role is to join up these two groups, and actually deliver!

So what do you, our CIO readers, think?  Which side of the fence are you on?

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