In my commentary on the latest Financial Times Digital Business podcast, I look at Chris Anderson’s charge that chief information officers are turning into “dead weight.” In case you missed it, Anderson had a provocative post on his blog late last month titled “Who Needs a CIO?” He’d given a speech at a CIO Magazine conference and came away from the event disillusioned:
You might have expected, as I had, that most Chief Information Officers wanted to know about the latest trends in technology so they could keep ahead of the curve. Nothing of the sort. CIOs, it turns out, are mostly business people who have been given the thankless job of keeping the lights on, IT wise. And the best way to ensure that they stay on is to change as little as possible. That puts many CIOs in the position of not being the technology innovator in their company, but rather the dead weight keeping the real technology innovators – employees who want to use the tools increasingly available on the wide-open Web to help them do their jobs better – from taking matters into their own hands.
… many CIOs are now just one step above Building Maintenance. They have the unpleasant job of mopping up data spills when they happen, along with enforcing draconian data retention policies sent down from the legal department. They respond to trouble tickets and disable user permissions. They practice saying “No”, not “What if…”
Christopher Koch, the executive editor of CIO Magazine, took umbrage at Anderson’s missile-like missive. On his own blog, he wrote:
Wow, did Chris Anderson, editor of Wired magazine, get some bad shrimp at the buffet when he spoke at our CIO conference a few months ago? [Anderson’s] premise for this post – that CIOs are business people exiled to the wasteland of IT – is completely without basis. Of the more than 500 CIOs we survey every year for our State of the CIO Survey, 80 percent have a technology background, not a business background – and that number has remained consistent since we started doing the survey in 2002. If there is a problem for CIOs these days, it is that their technology background gives business people the perception that CIOs are incapable of coming up with ways that IT can benefit the business … I would also argue that part of IT’s resistance to Web 2.0 can be traced to the fact that it isn’t really Web 2.0 at all. It’s Web 1.1. There are no FUNDAMENTALLY new ways of connecting people or exchanging value here, which makes a lot of it seem redundant to a CIO charged with maintaining application integrity, security and network performance.
There are a couple of different skirmishes going on here – over the identity of CIOs as well as over the value of new Web technologies – but, as I note in the FT commentary (pardon the self-quote), “what’s most interesting is that, once you peel back their rhetorical differences, you find that [Anderson and Koch] are largely in agreement. They both believe that most CIOs serve mainly a control function rather than one of innovation.” That’s a big change from the prevailing view about the direction of the CIO job at the dawn of this decade, when it was commonly assumed that the IT department would become the locus of not just IT innovation but business innovation in general.
But is “keeping the lights on” really so bad? One actual CIO, in a comment on Koch’s post, rose to the defense of the control role:
Keeping the lights on is important. Every morning, 1,500 people log in to our network and they expect their apps to work. Making sure their data is protected and that they have access to it 99.999% of the time is mission-critical to us … Our job is to find ways to use technology to advance the goals of the enterprise, not to find excuses to implement things because they’re new, cool, or will look good on our resumes.
It’s a fair point – running a tight IT ship is no easy accomplishment, particularly in a large organization – but I have no doubt that it’s not the last word in the seemingly endless debate about the role of the CIO. Of all “C-level” positions, the CIO post remains the least well defined and the most prone to identity crises. That’s probably a reflection of a deeper tension – the tension between the myth of business IT and the somewhat more pedestrian reality.