Becoming a Competitive Weapon in the New Economy

By - cin.earthweb.com Staff

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No longer relegated to back-office information systems tasks, CIOs and CTOs in large and small organizations are now seen as primary players in achieving success for new economy and traditional businesses alike. To assess the changing role of these chief IT executives, CIN invited an industry analyst and executive recruiting and business education experts to join a discussion with CIN community members and staff on the topic of the emerging role of the CIO and CTO.

The lively hour-long discussion, recorded on December 8, 2000, reveals perspectives on the personal, professional, and market forces that are at work defining and shaping CIO and CTO roles in contemporary businesses. It also sheds light on the expectations businesses place on chief IT executives today. One of the surprising views expressed is the concept of the CIO/CTO as a competitive weapon --- having the power to make or break businesses while providing a competitive advantage over rivals. And the options for chief IT executives to advance or enhance their careers seem unlimited. As one guest participant said, "you're the weapon you choose to be."

Here are highlights from the discussion:

Command and Control CIOs are in a position to test the boundaries of their roles based on the knowledge and skill they possess in ways that IT executives of old were never allowed to. Today, the chief IT executive is in a high-visibility role, serving the technology needs of "customers" inside and outside the organization. So, technology has become the ticket for entry to upper management.

Categorizing Expectations Company types play a part in defining the roles of chief IT executives, with performance expectations that are either expansive or restrictive. Leading-edge companies tend to be willing to take risks with technology and business strategies. Middle-of-the-road adopters of technology tend to support proven, cost-effective IT initiatives where the competitive advantage or market differentiation is clear. Trailing-edge companies tend to adopt technologies and new economy business strategies defensively.

The role and expectations for the IT executive are shaped by the aggressive, moderate, or defensive attitudes companies have toward technology. The challenge for the CIO/CTO in moderate to defensive-type companies is that technology is often seen as a disruptive force rather than an "enabling force, a transforming force."

Identity Shifts Organizations that are highly accepting or adaptive to new technologies expect chief IT executives to "know the business that you're in, the business that the company should be in, and also all the market forces. They expect, basically, a CIO who's a CEO, who understands the opportunities that information technology and telecommunications can provide."

A Seat at the Table For most companies, the role of the CIO/CTO is one that is primarily responsible for what happens within the walls of the organization. Even so, "the more progressive -- and effective -- companies are empowering a CIO to be more of a seat at the table." This often translates into being a member of the company executive committee and a direct report to the CEO or president of the company, rather than the CFO or CAO.

Going Up The driving forces behind the elevation of the CIO/CTO role can be either external or internal. One is fueled by the recognition that a fundamental change in business demands a technology response; the other is fueled by the recognition that technology can capitalize on a market opportunity.

Biz/Tech Polarities Finding CIOs and CTOs with the right mix of technical depth and business knowledge is a challenge faced by companies large and small. "The problem is there aren't enough people in the marketplace that have both," so larger companies tend to err on the business side, while smaller companies tend to err on the technology side.

Which type of chief IT executive will be successful is often determined not only by the size of the company, but by the size of the IT organization, too. CIOs and CTOs need to be able to communicate technology issues in plain English to the business staff, while gaining the respect of the IT staff with their knowledge of "the limitations and opportunities of technology."

An Executive by any other Name While there's no standard use of either CIO or CTO across companies and industries, a pattern is emerging where the CIO titleholder is most often a strategic role player, while the CTO titleholder drives the technical direction of a company. "When technology understanding and actual experience becomes that important, and business and information understanding and knowledge becomes that important, you can probably reach a point where you can't expect one person -- male or female -- to be able to do that in a company of a certain size."

What's Next? There's growing evidence that the CIO or CTO with the right mix of business and technology background and experience is a "shadow CEO -- a CEO in training" either for the business they work for or one they will work for. The CIO or CTO role is becoming a more accepted path to the top spots in organizations because of a generational shift in the leadership of companies.

Go to Becoming a Competitive Weapon in the New Economy for a complete transcript of the round table discussion. CIN wishes to thank the following experts and CIN members for participating: Alden Cushman, Vice President of Research at Kennedy Information Research Group; Marc Lewis, Managing Director, Technology & Venture Practice at Christian & Timbers; Jiten Patel, Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer of H&R Block Financial Advisors, Inc.; Joe Puglisi, CIO of EMCOR; and Bill Schiano, President of thoughtbubble productions and Assistant Professor at Bentley College.