The Chief Information Officer
In the late 1980s and mid 1990s, most executives in information technology either had grown up in the function, following a standard path from business analyst to director, or were accounting professionals with systems experience. Typically, directorship was the end of the line. IT leaders were detail-oriented, logical, sequential thinkers.
But toward the end of that period, as web opportunities burst onto the scene, companies began to seek more strategic ways to apply technology—using the internet to explore new markets, attract new customers, and streamline processes.
The typical IT director back then wasn’t particularly well versed in business strategy or big-picture thinking. Technology departments had become too rigid and parochial to respond quickly to new business challenges and opportunities. IT directors by and large either pushed back with technical reasons for why something couldn’t be done or agreed to requests too quickly without challenging their rationale or grasping their scope (and then frequently failed to deliver).
Across geographies and sectors, serious barriers—in both leadership behavior and capability—were emerging between the business and technology functions. The few executives who could straddle both worlds were in high demand.
In the mid to late 1990s, in response to the lack of business savvy among the IT staff, a new position evolved—CIO. The CIO was a senior executive who understood not only new technologies but also how they applied to business strategy. These new members of the executive team were able to broker the complex relationship between business leaders and the IT department.
They were less exclusively concerned with the technology itself and more attuned to how it could generate competitive advantage—and more focused on leadership and organizational effectiveness. Meanwhile, another phenomenon was emerging: globalization. IT managers had to deal with integrating and standardizing processes and platforms across multiple operating companies, group functions, and regions.
Then, in 2008, as credit began to dry up, business needs shifted again. Though IT had become better aligned with the business (at least when it came to improved relationships), IT executives now had to make complex decisions based on rigorous analyses of return on investment. Their jobs became less about managing projects well and more about managing the right projects well.
Major technology expenditures needed to be justified. A number of CIOs found themselves in over their heads; the IT function required a leader who understood the increased complexity of business and how IT strategy, business strategy, risk management, and finance interacted.
For the foreseeable future, we expect the demand for a sophisticated mix of skills in CIOs will increase. Companies will seek “hybrid” CIOs who have not only business savvy but also experience with analytics, organizational design, and infrastructure— and who know how to wire together a holistic system that can support global growth. In many cases, a commercial background will be a plus. Sales and marketing knowledge will be considered an advantage when it comes to e-commerce initiatives, as will stints in supply-chain management and logistics.
The most sought-after CIOs will have a keen understanding of how companies can put to use the oceans of information they now collect. As the CIO of a global consumer goods company explains, “There is a data explosion happening around us, but we feel we are well equipped to exploit this opportunity and use it as a competitive distinguisher in our markets. The ways we share our ideas and gain customer feedback are very new and exciting.”