The Changing Role of the Modern CIO

It used to be that 'back in the day' a CIO typically rose from the ranks of techies, going from T-shirts and jeans to join the suits around the boardroom table. But today, a CIO needs to be a business manager more than a techie, cultivating skills generally associated with the business side of the aisle.
It used to be that 'back in the day' a CIO typically rose from the ranks of techies, going from T-shirts and jeans to join the suits around the boardroom table.

Even today, some CIOs achieve their less-than-envious position of bending technology to suit the business needs of other c-level executives -- many of whom have no idea that what they are asking for is the equivalent of integration hara-kiri.

But most modern-day CIOs are increasingly finding themselves at the decision-making table. They have become an equal partner to any other c-level executive, with an equal say in what happens at their companies.

''We see this in spades at the leading corporations in America,'' says Richard Brennen, a partner and managing director of the IT Practice at the recruitment firm of Spencer Stuart. ''What you're seeing in the CIO today, and going forward, is more of a general manager than a technician. Today we're just as likely to see somebody as CIO who never was a programmer or never worked in a data center.''

Doreen Wright, the CIO of Campbell Soup, couldn't agree more.

''Today and moving forward, the CIO has to be a business manager first,'' she says. ''I don't think it's critical to grow up within the technology industry. You have to understand how to apply technology but you don't have to have the depth of knowledge that you did five years ago or 10 years ago.''

Although, Wright's situation is not typical of CIOs everywhere -- at least not yet.

Campbell's Soup is a progressive company. Actually, in its industry, Campbell's is a leading-edge company when it comes to technology and the role IT plays in the company's future success, Wright notes. And unlike many of her peers at other U.S. companies, Wright does not report to the CFO or the COO. She reports straight to the CEO.

This distinction is critical, says Bob Molnar, who runs a CIO recruiting practice for Highland Partners. When a CIO reports to a CEO, that CIO tends to be viewed as an equal to other c-levels in the company, says Molnar, who used to be a CIO at Viacom, as well as at divisions of American Express, HSBC and MCI.

When the CIO reports to someone else, they tend to be viewed as the director of a cost center for the company. Of course, none of this is written in stone, but it's generally accepted throughout the industry.

''That CIO has just as big a voice and just as big a vote as any other peer -- CFO, head of marketing, head of sales -- on every single issue in that company,'' says Molnar. ''They are not just viewed as functional specialists at the table.''

The drivers of this change are many but technology itself seems to be the main culprit.

Off-the-shelf, enterprise-wide solutions, such SCM, ERP and CRM, have freed the CIO from having to ride herd on a bunch of in-house programmers and allowed them to become active participants in the decision-making process, according to Jeff Neuberth, managing director at the recruitment firm of Hunt Howe Partners.

''CIOs have to understand the business and be a business person and a business partner, and at the same time, they have to understand software and technology and how that can be leveraged no longer to support the business but to actually drive it and give it an edge,'' he adds.

Wright's last major in-house assignment was more than 10 years ago when she was charged with developing a $50 million, multi-currency accounting package for a financial services company. Today, Quicken's QuickBooks can do the same thing.

Outsourcing so much requires CIOs to be better communicators and relationship managers, which basically means they have to be better collaborators.

And, from a technology perspective, the common architecture mandated by linking internal systems to the outside world means Wright can do things electronically much easier than ever before. This frees her time for more of the activities more commonly associated with a c-level executive.

''The skills the CIO needs today are different,'' she says. ''You have to be excellent at vendor management and vendor negotiation because you're constantly brokering for third-party systems. So, rather than having the technology team in-house, you have to be able to manage the firm that is providing those resources.''

Going forward, skills generally associated with the CEO's or CIO's jobs are going to be increasingly important to the CIO.

Brennen notes, What I like to tell people is that the IT agenda today is really the business agenda of the company.''






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