CIO: It's More Than Just a Title

By Daniel Gingras

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A question I get asked all the time is: "Do we really need a CIO or is a really strong director of IT enough?" In just the last week, I've fielded this question from the CEO of a billion-dollar company and the CEO of an $85 million company.

The question is interesting and the knee-jerk response is "Of course you need a CIO; everyone does." However, having just finished Nicholas Carr's book Does IT matter? (again) I've decided the answer is not that simple.

It's complicated by several factors, not the least of which is that there are many people in the discipline today who carry the title of CIO, but really are not doing the job. Either because they don't really understand the job, their environment is not conducive to the role, or they are sabotaged by a combination of forces.

The corollary question is: "What is the difference between a CIO and a directory of IT anyway?" I hear this one a lot too and it's a lot easier to answer. It's the difference between doing things right and doing the right things. It's the difference between making the trains run on time and deciding where the trains should go and what they should carry.

Unfortunately many organizations simply don't understand what the role of a true CIO should be in the organization, so the title continues to be misused and misunderstood. For example, Here's is a recruiting ad that ran in a Boston newspaper recently, which I've paraphrased to shield the guilty.

SENIOR VP & CIO: This is the most senior technology position in our organization and is key to transforming the company into a leader in our market. Must have a B.S. in computer science, computer information systems or business. M.S. in computer science or MBA preferred. Should come from the [blank] industry, and we would prefer a candidate who came from the following companies [here they list their competitors].

Qualifications: Microsoft Certified System Engineer, Cisco Certified Network Engineer, CISSP, should understand Microsoft windows, Exchange 2003, Lotus Notes, LAN and WAN configuration, Checkpoint Firewall, VPN, Oracle applications and be proficient in Visual Basic and C++.

Will not relocate.

This ad is clearly for a good senior director's position (not a c-level job), and by advertising for a SVP and CIO they both devalue the position and are fishing in the wrong pond for what they're trying to catch.

Either they will likely hire someone over-qualified (who will leave in a short period of time) or under qualified to be CIO and they'll be disappointed at the lack of strategic focus.

Although they want someone to transform their organization with technology, they hope he'll live nearby so they can avoid the relocation expense.

Clearly this organization doesn't understand what the role of a CIO should be so they fall back on the two crutches of the uninformed hiring manager: credentials and hiring from a competitor.

While these have some minor merit, the don't add a tremendous value to the hiring process because hiring based on credentials is okay for a junior position where there is no documented track record. And credentials are a great augmentation to a documented track record, but the listed credentials above are clearly inappropriate for a CIO level job.

Hiring from a competitor has more merit, but limits your organization to both a smaller pool of talent and misses the opportunity to cross-fertilize your organization with ideas from other industries.

The problem with the role of CIO is that the person who is responsible for hiring generally has both a limited understanding of the role, and no idea how to spot the right talent, so they generally resort to the two known and measurable factors, credentials and candidates from competitors.

It's shortsighted and leads to the crisis of tenure we've seen in the ranks of the CIO, where the average longevity is less than 30 months.

The key is understanding both the nature of the role, and the process to find the right candidate. Unfortunately based on the current CIO tenure, there is still a lot of work to be done to educate management on both of these issues.

Daniel Gingras has been CIO of five major companies and is a partner at Tatum Partners, a national professional services organization of senior-level technology and financial executives who take on leadership roles for client companies -- generally organizations undertaking significant change. He has more than 30 years of experience in technology strategy and implementation and teaches computer science at Boston University. He can be reached at dan.gingras@tatumpartners.com.