CIOs make progress, but still get no respect

While chief information officers have made great strides to become more strategic and valuable, they're often still regarded as an "itinerant specialists” rather than long-term strategic partners to CEOs.
Written by Michael Krigsman, Contributor

Chief Information Officers have made great strides to become more strategic and valuable to the organizations they serve. At the same time, research from numerous sources demonstrates the large gap that remains between IT performance and business expectations.

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In simple terms, the data shows that many senior business decision-makers view CIOs and IT in a neutral, or even negative, light that indicates a lack of respect and credibility. I suspect three strong contributing factors:

  • Many organizations constrain IT’s ability to act strategically by simultaneously demanding both cost reductions and a strategic innovation agenda.
  • Right or wrong, old perceptions of IT as being mostly about infrastructure still linger.
  • As expectations toward IT shift, many CIOs still struggle to find their place in this new world.

Frankly, the data shows that IT is not meeting expectations in important ways. Although a broad generalization, the collected body of data on business dissatisfaction with IT is clear.

General business leadership views toward IT

A survey by Tech Pro Research highlights “wildly divergent” perception differences between how technology leaders and business executives see IT and innovation. As the graph below shows, 52 percent of CIO/CTO respondents believe that IT has a strong impact on innovation while only 20 percent of other respondents shared that view:

Tech Pro Research IT CIO innovation

The same report notes that 62 percent of non-CIO/CTO leaders think the CIO role has stayed the same or become less relevant in the last five years; only 35 percent of technology respondents feel that way. The graph shows this trend:

Tech Pro Research CIO relevance

Research sponsored by Sungard Availability Services, referencing an earlier survey, shows that only 56 percent of senior business decision-makers believe the CIO and his/her team are “helpful in realizing my department’s ideas.” Think about this – only about half the business leaders in this survey think the CIO and IT help their departments address core business needs.

CIO and IT relationship with business Sungard Availability Services

Data from Forrester Research presents similar results regarding business decision-makers’ view of IT innovation. As the diagram shows, only 43 percent of respondents believe that IT collaborates with the business on strategy and innovation:

Forrester IT innovation

In separate research from Forrester, only 46 percent of respondents were satisfied with their IT department’s ability to fulfill technology needs. Moreover, only 45 percent were satisfied that IT understands what the business needs to be successful.

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In yet additional research, Forrester brings more color to the relationship between business and IT. Take a close look at this graph, showing the extent to which business leaders do not believe IT and the CIO accelerate their department’s success:

Forrester business view of IT and CIO

Here are the numbers, broken out by department. Remember, these are negative perceptions and even 43 percent of people working in IT think their department does not deliver:

  • Customer service – 79 percent
  • Product development and engineering – 78 percent
  • Sales – 74 percent
  • R&D – 69 percent
  • Marketing – 51 percent
  • IT – 43 percent

Chief Financial Officer perspectives on IT

In a report discussing the relationship between the CFO and IT, Gartner [PDF] presents painful data on CFO expectations of IT:

Few respondents view IT as transformational; while 21% are advocates for IT, only 13% consider their IT function as transformational

This graphic paints the unfortunate picture:

Gartner CIO innovation transformation CFO

That same research shows that only 28 percent of respondents are “advocates” of IT:

Gartner business perception of IT

The Sungard research mentioned earlier states that only 30 percent of CFOs think there is a competitive advantage to be gained by working closely with IT, as shown in this chart:

Sungard IT and competitive advantage

Keith Tilley, executive vice-president of Europe and Asia-Pacific at Sungard Availability Services, comments about the data in ComputerWeekly:

it is alarming to see only a third of CFOs are taking the opportunity to work more closely with the CIO and their team.

Chief Executive Officers and IT

A report from Gartner categorizes the CIO as an “itinerant specialist” rather than a long-term strategic partner to the CEO:

The survey results showed most CEOs still regard their CIOs as itinerant specialists.… Most CEOs thought the best next step for their CIOs would be to do the same job in the same industry or in another industry. Few thought they would move on to a business leadership role.

Reading this, one must exclaim, “Wow. Just wow.” I thought the world had moved beyond this disrespectful stereotype of CIO as merely a technology specialist with limited skills, but apparently we must continue this battle.

An article on the Harvard Business Review site presents additional research about CEO perceptions toward the CIO. Here is the summary:

CEOs believe that CIOs are not in sync with the new issues CEOs are facing, CIOs do not understand where the business needs to go, and CIOs do not have a strategy, in terms of opportunities to be pursued or challenges to be addressed in support of the business.

The article findings read like a litany of CEO negativity toward IT:

  • Almost half of CEOs feel IT should be a commodity service purchased as needed
  • Almost half of CEOs rate their CIOs negatively in terms of understanding the business and understanding how to apply IT in new ways to the business
  • 57% of the executives expect their IT function to change significantly over the next three years, and 12% predict a “complete overhaul” of IT
  • Only a quarter of executives felt their CIO was performing above his or her peers

Concluding thoughts

Fair or not, the body of research described here is compelling. For this reason, every CIO should consider the possibility that some of their peers and management share views presented by the data. The solution is spending more time with business departments and leaders, learning nuances of their needs and goals. As CIO, delegate the technology to staff while you focus on solving business problems around the company.

To make IT a meaningful center of innovation, start with your business partners and let the technology follow.


The idea for this post came about as I studied the excellent 2015 SIM IT Trends Comprehensive report from Society for Information Management (SIM). The lead author, Professor Leon Kappelman, included a lengthy footnote (with references) describing the gap between CIO and business perceptions of IT. My thanks to Dr. Kappelman for his great work.

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