Five reasons why there's so much CIO angst

Nicholas Carr asks if CIOs are dead weight. David Berlind notes that CIOs may be dead weight unless they are the only thing in the IT department.
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor

Nicholas Carr asks if CIOs are dead weight. David Berlind notes that CIOs may be dead weight unless they are the only thing in the IT department. Wired Magazine editor Chris Anderson says CIOs merely keep the lights on these days. CIO executive editor Christopher Koch defends CIOs.

So what's the hubbub about?

This debate won't go away--in fact you'll hear it at every CIO conference you attend. Why is there so much angst? The short answer is that CIOs are dealing with numerous cross currents that don't necessarily add up that well.

Here are five reasons there's so much CIO angst:

The tech bubble scars linger: Ever meet anyone that survived the Great Depression? They don't spend money and they always expect the floor of the economy to fall from under them. They also don't waste things. Big events can traumatize a generation. For the IT profession, the dot-com boom and bust was such an event. CIOs used to be flying high and innovating because optimism reigned. Today? CIOs are gun shy and the higher ups won't authorize any bold moves. Bottom line: No CIO gets fired for not taking chances. Therefore, CIOs don't take chances. Even Web 2.0 items that may be interesting CIOs want in a suite.

The pendulum has swung away from technologists to business types: Many CIOs today fill more than one role as they focus more on operations. Guess which one moves you up the corporate ladder quicker? Hint: It doesn't contain the letters "C-I-O." An increasing number of CIOs don't even have technology backgrounds. In IT today everything is about a metric. Not that I'm opposed to that since I'm a big fan of quantification. But there are side effects to metric-itis. The biggest side effect is that you're likely to do a project that looks good in a spreadsheet, but may not give your company a long-lasting innovation lead because it doesn't have the right acronyms (TCO, ROI, IRR) attached.

Corporate accountability has become paralysis: We had Enron and Worldcom and now corporate America is stuck with an endless array of controls that may not add up to efficiency or even better corporate governance. How many IT dollars were sucked into the Sarbanes-Oxley morass? We'll never know, but to say Sarbanes-Oxley has been a plague on the CIO profession (CIOs are often the Sarbox fall people) may be an understatement.

The metrics that would validate IT are still sketchy: Now everyone reading this site knows IT is important to some degree. Try marketing that internally. Try quantifying a security project. It's difficult. And even as IT gets more focused on business it's unlikely CIOs will get credit for a snazzy new CRM system or sales process. Who will take the credit? You got it: The marketing and sales executives. Why? Marketing folks are used to selling. Computer science majors--the few that are left--couldn't sell water in the desert.

What exactly does a CIO do? No other C-level title has so much ambiguity. As Carr notes CIOs have identity issues. That's because they have definition issues. There is no blueprint CIO and you sure can't explain the role in an elevator pitch. Some keep the lights on. Some revamp entire companies. Some focus on innovation while others provide competitive advantage. Technically speaking a CIO should be about managing information, but the roles and responsibilities are muddled.

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