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Subtle signs of how we hold the CIO back

by Mark P. McDonald  |  February 3, 2020  |  Comments Off on Subtle signs of how we hold the CIO back

If digital transformation is, in part, a technology transformation; then the CIO should play a major role.  Its simple logic, given the CIO’s responsibilities and resources.  Simple logic should create simple advice. When it comes to advice for the CIO, none of it is simple.

On the surface we talk about the role of the CIO in digital transformation.  Beneath that surface we use terms and mental models that keep the CIO trapped in a back office functional role.  Its subtle, but effective, but too many people, industry analysts and executives still think the CIO is the senior most guy from the IT department.

Thinking about bias before during and after reading something.  Reading for bias was the best skills I learned in college.  Everything has bias and here are some ways analysts, consultants and others subtly bias and marginalize CIOs.  They  include:

Applying a bottom up argument – starting with the CIO’s current responsibilities and how they should expand.  This defines the new role as in terms of ‘both and’, their new role and their old role.  The dig is this – you cannot do your new role until you discharge your old one.  CEO’s, CFO’s and other leaders prove themselves and move into new roles.  The CIO’s role on the other hand makes advancement contingent on continuing with their current responsibilities.

Discussing IT as a function – maintain a difference between the business and IT.  Explaining the CIO or IT roles in terms of enablement, support or providing implies an arm’s length and separate relationship.  Keeping things separate and functional creates a persistent us and them bias. If technology is the business, then can their really be a separate IT function.

Applying the same questions to every trend – shows that the CIO’s role will not change.  The standard questions revolve around: being more strategic, saving more money, going faster, fixing legacy technology, getting their teams with the right skills, etc.  These are concerns they had 20 years ago.  If they are the same now, then how can the role be different now?  It’s a subtle way of saying that CIOs are not really doing their job well.

Declaring the role as an outsider – by stating what they need to become.  In this case, the phrase ‘the CIO needs to become a business leader’ presumes that they are not.  A search of that phrase produced about 53,400,000 results (0.64 seconds) in Google.   If a CIO is not a business leader, then they must be just the IT guy.  “You are not one of us,” is the sign of disrespect even in the face that its untrue.

Industry analysts can see these points as recognizing reality.  CIO reporting relationships, membership in boards, roles and responsibilities are what they are.  Yes, and assuming they will stay that way subtly marginalizes the CIO role in the C-suite and business.  The articles, analysis and research coming out today is eerily similar to similar lines of argument made about the challenges of the internet, cloud, analytics etc.

A recent McKinsey Digital article “The CIO challenge: modern business need a new kind of tech leader” illustrates these observations.   This article is a recent example of a long term trend.  I am using it to illustrate the ways in which we subtly keep the CIO in their place.

The article argues that ‘now is the worst time to be an average CIO.’  They then discuss the need for CIOs to go beyond simply managing IT to leveraging technology to create value for the business.  The authors argue that CIOs need to deliver on three vectors of holistic transformation and exhibit five traits of a transformational CIO.  The authors, in good faith, have defined their view on what CIOs need to do in order to become a new kind of tech leader.  The comments in (parenthesis) highlight how these points support a marginalized view of the CIO.

The vectors are in summary:

  • Reimagining the role of technology in the organization – establishing the role of technology as a business and innovation partner.
  • Reinvent technology delivery – IT needs to change how it functions by embracing agile, improving IT services, etc.
  • Future-proof the foundation – keeping pace with rapid technology advances and supporting a flexible architecture with modular platforms, data ubiquity and cybersecurity.

The five traits include:

  • Business leader – with the imperative that the CIO needs to understand business strategy and business from the inside and out. CIOs need to take responsibilities for initiatives that generate revenue.  CIOs need to get on boards to build networks outside of their organization.
  • Change Agent – digital transformation requires infusing technology into every strategy discussion and processes across the organization. CIOs need to partner with business leaders and articular the why, risks and plans beyond IT.
  • Talent Scout – address technology skills gaps on traditional teams. This requires attracting tech starts, building internal talent and retaining both.
  • Culture Revolutionary – creating a culture that supports talent and technology talent. CIO’s in this view are responsible for building a true engineering community, modelling and supporting true collaboration.
  • Tech Translator – a need to change from IT transformations described as expensive, time consuming and short on value. The authors see this as a trust and education issues making CIOs responsible for clarifying the business implications of technology decisions.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with these vectors or traits.  It’s the way they are presented, what they presume, their context and the way they make the argument that illustrate how we keep the CIO in their place.

Everyone should read for bias.  Every writer should recognize the bias.  Writers should further consider how what they write holds people back.

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Category: cio  digitalization  it-epic-journey  management  personal-observation  

Mark McDonald, Ph.D., is a Vice President and Fellow Emeritus in Gartner for General Managers Program.






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