CEOs and CIOs: Redefining their roles for the sake of business

CEOs and CIOs: Redefining their roles for the sake of business

Summary: The paths of CEOs and CIOs are starting to cross and if the CIO becomes more engaged in the company itself, as it's been suggested, shouldn't the CEO also take a greater interest in company's technology?


Does your CEO care about the IT department? Xerox CEO Ursula Burns doesn't. But she does care about the "BT," or Business Technology, department and the job that those folks do to enhance and improve the way Xerox does business.

That's one of the reasons that she hired John McDermott, the company's former chief strategist, to be its Chief Information Officer. McDermott doesn't have an IT background - but those that she interviewed who did come from IT or were already CIOs only talked about one thing during their interviews - the technology. McDermott talked about the company itself, keeping Burns' interest with examples of how the company could address specific problems spots by implementing new technologies. And he spoke it in a way that she and the board of directors understood - using the language of business, not the jargon of tech.

Burns' remarks, which closed out Day One of Forrester's IT Forum, followed a presentation by Forrester chairman and CEO George F. Colony. From his perspective, CEOs didn't really have a reason to care about the IT department in the past. The CEO and CIO didn't really have much to talk about, usually just an update on a project and whether it was going to be within budget and on-time.

This goes back to the message that came out of the morning keynotes - CIOs need to be engaging in strategy meetings, pushing back on busy work that won't help the business meet its goals and proposing solutions that originate with his team. How do they do that? Colony says CIOs must:

  • Get in the game. Learn that company from the inside out. At the morning session, Starbucks CIO Stephen Gillett talked about spending a week on the front lines of a store, making coffee to get a better understanding of other parts of the company's operations. If a CIO wants to get away from putting out fires to delivering new tools, that CIO needs to be in the game.
  • Bring best practices. CIOs need to know who's doing what and what sort of successes and stumbles they've experienced. The CIO needs to have a pulse on not only the technology and the platform - but also the roadmap of the vendor that the company is about to commit to.
  • Get out of the order-taking business. A lot of IT departments spin their wheels processing help tickets and other requests. A CIO needs to develop a point of view, an opinion and a perspective on the company's direction, roadmap and priorities, offering input about the "BT" department's role in the process.

Colony says the CIO's job is to be the teacher for the CEO and the board - maybe even suggesting that the board establish a subcommittee on technology.

Forrester's IT Forum continues through Friday.

Topics: CXO, BT

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  • Good in Theory...

    This idea has been kicking around for at least 15 years that I know of. The problem is, it isn't practical. Certainly a natural talent arises as seems to be the case at Xerox in the above blog post however, cross training engineers, programmers, and techs to be business minded requires a retooling of either the entire educational structure of the country or a company would have to spend money on cross training which they are reluctant to do. Engineers, programmers, and techs are trained not only in understanding physical systems that have solutions but in thinking like maintenance and trouble shooters. They also have their own sub-culture.

    In practice you end up with a few bright stars that can do both high level business, but mostly you end up with technology run by a business person who loses the respect of the hardliner techheads because they don't understand technology or technology is run by a tech who worked up through the ranks. They understand technology but they probably don't understand high level business. Again there are always bright stars that can do both but they are rare and valuable.

    I have worked in companies with very bizarre and artificial wars going on between the engineering/IT department and the business departments. Not only is cross training not encouraged, if you are caught doing it, you have "betrayed" your group.

    As someone who is more tech minded, When I send two logic "1"s into an AND gate, I get a logic "1" on the output, every single time unless the gate is broken. It is a very comforting thing. You can't do that with high level business. It is very psychological, sociological and messy. It involves ways of looking at the world that are very uncomfortable.
    • RE: CEOs and CIOs: Redefining their roles for the sake of business

      @mr1972 Absolutely true. I am a tech tech guy who became CEO of a publicly-held tech company and served for 10 years. I could do the business work, but lacked the marketing and vision skills to expand the company. Furthermore, I didn't enjoy the business end of the work, nor did I much like being beat up by my customers every week. After I quit, voluntarily, I went back to engineering and finished my career on a happy note.
  • RE: CEOs and CIOs: Redefining their roles for the sake of business

    @mr1972 This is very true. I understand the need for these shining stars, but coming from an engineering background I have seen plenty of examples of business minded tech guys who seem to lose their "tech-cred" and thus become "just another suit" to the rest of the people in the IT dept.
  • RE: CEOs and CIOs: Redefining their roles for the sake of business

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  • RE: CEOs and CIOs: Redefining their roles for the sake of business

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