Who Wants to Be a CIO Anymore?


These days, chief information officers seem to be on the hot seat for any number of reasons. And I'm starting to wonder why anyone would want to be a CIO.

For more than two years, investment bank WestLB has been fighting a sex discrimination case that, in discovery stages, has revolved around electronic documentation. WestLB's CIO spent an uncomfortable afternoon being deposed by opposing lawyers about where he stores data and why, and whether it's accessible and at what cost.

Providence Health & Services is battling to save its reputation after a systems analyst took disks and tapes home, per policy in his division, as a way to secure them over the New Year's holiday last year. When the disks and tapes were stolen, so was private data on 365,000 Providence patients, and the CIO there had to help figure out how to stem the damage.

Mergers fall apart on data errors, and companies shut down new lines of business because they haven't thought through data management.

CIOs must be accountable for everything, from the clueless sales rep who leaves private customer data on a public Internet kiosk at a hotel, to how well the company complies with federal regulations such as Sarbanes-Oxley, to whether the company can run manufacturing plants internationally.

And, of course, the CIO hears it when the CEO's BlackBerry dies.

None of this is wrongheaded. But is this an attractive job description?

Then there is the criticism.

Recently, we heard Gartner, one of the top tech consulting firms, musing about how some CIOs are regarded as laggards who endanger the ability of the United States to compete in a global market where China and India scarf up any IT business left unattended by American companies.

IT departments seem "to be missing the visionaries, whose drive and ambition to challenge conventional wisdom either with technology innovation or business process innovation can make the difference," said Steve Prentice, an analyst at Gartner, speaking at Gartner's symposium on emerging trends in late April.

Larry Dignan, meanwhile, talked recently on his blog about "the monotone ... cautious technology manager who runs rampant today."

Whoa. Them's fighting words.

And that's good.

We can drill down and analyze why some IT leaders are less effective than others. For example, I tend to think that the 25 percent of CIOs who report to chief financial officers, according to our sister magazine CIO Insight, have their hands tied more than those who don't report to finance.

But for all the mediocre tech leaders who may be out there--and notice how I don't argue that they don't exist--just as many IT innovators propel their companies to new heights and into fresh markets.

I'm not talking about obvious examples, such as eBay and Google, where the company is the technology. I'm talking about Scott Griffin at Boeing, where computer-aided design savvy helps it outpace Airbus to market with new planes. Barbara Cooper at Toyota North America, where lean manufacturing procedures and technology pushed Toyota to become the No. 1 car maker in the world. Gary Reiner at General Electric, which has so much confidence in technology, and its top technologist, that Reiner is not only CIO but head of strategy for the company.

These CIOs buy software and hardware, build on those pieces and thereby create tools--strategies as well as systems--honed to help their fellow employees do their jobs better. They don't lack for the "drive and ambition" that Gartner's Prentice cited. They envision, working with others at their companies who also have vision, and then make things happen. They keep their word, influence vendor plans and--as with Expedia, FedEx, UPS, Dell, Wal-Mart, Procter & Gamble, Boeing, Toyota, Harrah's and others--change whole industries.

Maybe that's why someone would want to be a CIO.