Evolution of the CIO: The real story

CIOs were always meant to be strategists, but the position is changing in interesting ways. Here are three new roles that CIOs are beginning to take on.

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The conversations swirling today about the evolving role of the CIO typically start from a flawed historical premise. Many contemporary writers and analysts simply do not understand what a CIO was meant to be when the role was first created in the early 1980s.

Prior to that time, the practice of IT in large enterprises was a hodgepodge of tactical projects primarily aimed at automating back-room processes. The term “chief information officer” was coined in 1981 by William Synnott, vice president of data processing at the Bank of Boston, who argued that IT was strategic, not just a means to reduce costs, and should be examined and deployed from an enterprise perspective. Before then, there were no executives anywhere responsible for refocusing IT on strategic enterprise initiatives. The CIO role was created to fill that void.

Thus, when you hear people argue today that the CIO has evolved from a micro-focused, cost-obsessed machine-tender to industry-disrupting strategist, understand that they are flat-out wrong. CIOs were always meant to be strategists. Yes, there are executives bearing the title CIO who are tactical, departmental, shortsighted and ineffective. They are not real CIOs.

None of which is to say that the role of real CIOs isn’t evolving. It is, and I recently completed a multi-continent research study to find out the ways it is evolving. Here are three new roles CIOs are undertaking. 

Conversation Architect

Real CIOs have always participated in enterprise strategic conversations. That’s what CIO Max Hopper was doing when the SABRE reservation system was created at American Airlines. 

What’s new is the CIO shaping the strategic conversation. This now seems inevitable in a world gone digital, where every enterprise is in the Internet-connected device business. Someone needs to create a framework for information to be shared and decisions to be made. Someone needs to establish some guardrails to ensure that civil and constructive discourse happens. That someone could and probably should be the CIO. 

The shaper of the strategic conversation needs to keep the discussion from resembling any of the debates held among the presidential candidates this year, where there has been a lot of arm waving and little real talking. The CIO can do this by focusing on three basic elements:priorities (we will focus resources on these things),sequencing (we will do this first, then that) and the theory of victory (we will succeed for the following reasons). 

Digital Scorekeeper

Every organization, whether aware of it or not, is on a digital journey. But journeys are fraught with danger when you have no map and no navigator. Once again, enter the CIO. 

What is unusual about the road to the digital enterprise is that it leads to the customer, and historically CIOs’ contact with customers has been tangential at best. To achieve the digital enterprise, the CIO, working with marketing, has to put in place sensors that give voice to the customer point of view. Success has always hinged on what customers need versus what you have to sell. What has changed is that digital input can now flood in to tell you what it is that customers need. It is only natural for the CIO to play a major role capturing, filtering and funneling this data representing the voice of the customer.   

Microcredential Archivist

One piece of the workplace transformation now under way has been little remarked upon but is critically important. It is how people communicate what they can do. This has long been done with résumés that list professional or educational credentials in the form of diplomas and certifications. 

This is being supplanted by microcredentials. A microcredential, also known as a “badge,” is any kind of credential that focuses on a specific skill or capability. The knowledge represented by a microcredential is much narrower than that represented by a degree or a full-blown certification. 

Currently, most organizations are not set up to manage microcredentials. But in the future, the CIO, working with HR, will play a major role in conceptualizing and deploying microcredentialing systems.

These are just a few of the new roles real CIOs will be playing in the next few years. I will talk about some others in the future.

This story, "Evolution of the CIO: The real story" was originally published by Computerworld.