21st Century CIO: Today's CIOs possess multidimensional business skills

Everyone knows what CIO means: career is over, right? Well, that old joke may no longer be true, but one thing is certain: virtually every adult on the planet knows that CIO stands for chief information officer, the top executive in a business organization in charge of IT.

The title is ubiquitous, at least in the business world. It is recognized by the Department of Labor, has a namesake magazine and lucky CIOs who work at publicly traded companies get their salaries published in SEC filings for all to see. (They're none too shabby, either.)

But despite this recognition, it turns out no one knows exactly who the first CIO was. I'm sure this factoid can be found somewhere, but it eluded my Google searches, e-mail inquiries to a dozen CIOs and analysts, and a direct appeal to CIO magazine itself.

Since everyone I contacted agrees the title was born as recently as the mid-1980s, it appears we have incredibly short memories. Or, as several CIOs noted, who cares?

Climbing the Ladder

To those of us who have occasionally speculated about where 21st century CIOs are heading, it's important to know where they've been. The in-house computer person was offered a seat at the big corporate table in the mid-'80s and was frequently given the title chief technology officer (CTO).

These executives were considered "technology gurus" as opposed to business-unit peers, according to George Medairy, director of corporate IT at Sheetz. "Their expertise was in bringing emerging technologies into the organization and being the chief architects and scientists for in-house development," recalls Medairy. As a result, they emerged as strong, go-it-alone leaders.

However, the model for the CIO began to change in the 1990s as organizations realized the true value of technology was in the information. During this time the CIO title became pervasive to describe the senior-level person who directs both the technology and the information architecture.

After Y2K and the dot-com era, according to Jeff Roster, vice president global industries retail for Gartner, the CIO morphed again into "a change agent with advanced business skills."

Leaving the Old Model Behind

Today, according to a poll of CIOs for the 2005 RIS/Gartner Retail Tech Trends Study, the most important values in a modern CIO are business skills, IT skills and leadership.

"More CIOs come out of traditional business roles and have experience outside of IT than ever before," notes Terry Morgan, senior vice president of IT and CIO for Food Lion, "unlike 10 or 15 years ago when the jobs were much more technically focused."

The 21st century CIO is increasingly called on to be multidimensional and skilled at working within cross-functional projects, observes Vicki Cantrell, senior vice president and CIO for Giorgio Armani. "Today, 90 percent of my time is spent on cross-departmental initiatives and building and working with cross-functional teams," Cantrell reports. "Even projects that seem strictly IT oriented, such as security or customer data protection, reach out into all areas of the company."

Bill Noakes, senior vice president, general counsel and CIO for Meijer, says CIOs must develop a close working relationship with the three top executives in the organization. Today's CIOs manage up the corporate ladder as well as down to increase the chances of success for projects and investments. "The CIO must work closely with the CEO and the COO to understand, shape and help lead the strategic direction of the enterprise," says Noakes. "A good working relationship with the CFO goes without saying - no funding, no projects."

What's Ahead?

Rapid change is becoming a constant. Transition points are occurring simultaneously in retailing (globalization, multichannel shopping), the vendor landscape (mergers and acquisitions) and technology itself (RFID, services-oriented architecture). These trends present unique opportunities:

The IT department is uniquely positioned to assist the organization to improve business processes, so the CIO will become a champion of internal change. Most retailers have gained the 80 percent portion of benefits out of IT deployments and CIOs are faced with the harder part of squeezing out the last few percentage points.

With most business systems and infrastructure in place, CIOs will focus on better ways to leverage technology to deliver critical information to the organization.

CIOs will increasingly be asked to manage systems used by domestic and overseas suppliers as the industry moves toward a closed-loop view of the demand chain.

As the specialist perception of technology begins to fade and IT becomes more embedded in the fabric of the organization, successful CIOs will become leading candidates for the top CEO job.

While examining the future of the CIO is an exercise in speculation, so, too, is an inquiry into the past. My best guess is that the job title comes from a Harvard Business School professor who is said to have coined it in the mid-1980s while explaining that it requires the highest level of governance. Soon after, Businessweek ran a cover story with a headline that read "The New Corporate Officer, the CIO." And in September 1987, CIO magazine was born. The rest was history. Or was it?

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