Imagine There are No CIOs


By Tony Kontzer

To paraphrase John Lennon, "Imagine there are no CIOs."

This may sound like heresy to the majority of IT executives (and any Lennon fans), but this doomsday scenario for IT leaders deserves some consideration.

Let's first consider a recent study commissioned by CA Technologies, and performed by market research firm Vanson Bourne. The study, which polled 685 CIOs worldwide from organizations with more than 500 employees in the financial, manufacturing, retail and telecom industries, found a great discrepancy between the number of CIOs who aspire to be CEOs and those who actually reach that goal.

To be precise, some 54 percent of CIOs consider themselves legitimate contenders to be the head honcho one day, a sign that technology execs believe they're getting the training and experience they need to make the big business decisions. But report says only 4 percent of the CEOs at the companies surveyed have ever served in a technology leadership role.

In a summary of the report's findings, CA makes it clear that it believes CIOs are being undervalued:

"Our report indicates modern CIOs are not just technologists. They have the necessary business acumen, commercial ability and people management expertise to add considerable strategic value to the business and its shareholders. What they lack is the opportunity to externalize [sic] these with customers and partners, and all too often they lack a forum to share their unique insight with their own leadership team in the boardroom."

Ah, the old lack of a seat at the boardroom table trick. A tried-but-true method for keeping the CIO in his or her place. If only CIOs could get the opportunities to show that they're worthy...

Except they probably won't. As Marc J. Schiller wrote in a post on the cloudy future of the CIO, the influence of CIOs is being undermined by a trio of trends:

  • Business managers have become so tech savvy they no longer need the CIO--or IT in general--to meet their technology needs;
  • IT has become a commodity that can be purchased via the cloud by anyone with a credit card; and
  • What can't be bought in the cloud can easily be outsourced without IT's involvement.
Almost on cue, I had recently completed writing a case study about some interesting things US Investigations Services has been doing on the IT front to help its proposal-submission efforts. The company is a big provider of background investigation services for federal agencies and, as such, is faced with a constant onslaught of opportunities to submit contract bids. Just as the story was being readied for posting, we were told by USIS spokesman Jack Papp that the company had just let go of two of the prominent people I'd interviewed for the story, one of whom was CIO Cheryl Cohen.

Bad timing, to be sure, but what really intrigued me was the fact that the organization is not replacing Cohen (who was with the company for just a year) but have instead handed her responsibilities to VP of IT Rory Job. Like Cohen, Job will report directly to the CEO of USIS, who in turn reports to the CEO of parent company Altegrity. Papp assured me that the CIO position had not been eliminated, but being that there are no plans to hire another one, and that Job hasn't been given the title of CIO, it sure sounds like an eliminated position.

Nitty-gritty details aside, what's important about the USIS development is the implication that the CIO doesn't wear the pants in the corporate family. It's unlikely USIS would do the same to the CFO or the COO. In fact, CA's report says that 29 percent of CEOs rose from the CFO post, while 23 percent were once COOs.

Clearly, this is a time for CIOs to do some soul-searching. Marginalized by the commoditization of IT, they're in a state of constantly trying to figure out their future roles, while apparently warranting little more than a blip in the succession planning at large organizations.

Suddenly, that adaptation of John Lennon's lyrics isn't sounding so silly, is it?


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