The New New CIO Role: Big Changes Ahead

"I've gone out of my way to make sure that my expectations here are not all around IT," Shurts says. "I'm not shying away from all of those [IT] things: I own them all and am completely responsible for their success. But I want it to be more than that. I want to be playing in the strategy and business transformation areas as much as the IT area.... To some degree, I want people to think of me maybe as the chief transformation officer as well as the CIO."

Shurts isn't waiting for his invitation to the inner sanctum of SuperValu's strategy planning. And neither should other CIOs.

At Sony Electronics, CIO Drew Martin says "waiting to be asked" is a mistake that too many CIOs make. "I think it's more a matter of understanding what's important to the business--and then engaging in dialogue around what tech innovations can be brought to bear to accomplish those business objectives," Martin says. "If you wait to be asked, it's too late. If you have to ask for permission, there's a credibility gap there."

More and more of Sony Electronics' products are enabling new customer connections via the Internet and social media platforms. In turn, Martin and his group are side by side with business peers ensuring that when, say, the marketing group wants to engage with customers via Facebook, YouTube or Twitter, or via a Sony product-support site, they have the CRM tools to do that.

For instance, Sony maintains a "Sony Listens" customer service on Twitter. Martin says it's critical that when there's "conversation out there regarding dissatisfaction or confusion we have the infrastructure support to listen and respond effectively."

IT also needs to be out in front of line of business managers' burgeoning interest in cloud computing--guiding them through the hype to figure out "what's valuable in the hype and what things should be avoided, and making trade-offs and decisions," Martin says. "That's a fundamental thing we have to do."

The growing trend of line of business managers circumventing IT is also an opportunity for CIOs to raise their profile and ingratiate themselves into the business to show real leadership, says SuperValu's Shurts. "We have to be proactive," he says. "We need to tell the story [to our business peers] around integration and data being the same in different places, since you'll end up with siloed applications at the end if we don't work together and get the data right across the enterprise."

Many CIOs today can claim additional responsibilities outside of traditional IT duties. For instance, there's CIO Gary Reiner who also runs GE's $55 billion procurement group. Or CIO Steven Gillett who's in charge of Starbucks' Digital Ventures team that's working on in-store tech and media offerings.

American Airlines' Ford terms this CIO personal development strategy "getting outside your comfort zone." When he first joined American, for instance, he asked for and received the additional role of building out AA's e-commerce and online efforts. And though that's no longer his direct responsibility (he handed it off to a new marketing hire some years later), he's still helping co-innovate Web-based and mobile applications today.

One of the most vexing and divisive questions CIOs have faced over the years is "What is the value of IT?" The inherent slight contained within the question is matched only by the difficulty in attempting to give an accurate and honest answer.

"It's rare to find an executive who doesn't think technology is important," says IT strategist Potts. "They don't always know why, but they do. Yet you can't put a number on it."

How, then, are businesses supposed to measure the performance of CIOs and overall value of their IT departments? The easy answer is: It's difficult. Sure, a CEO can look at uptime/downtime figures, project portfolio management numbers, and budgetary considerations to gauge how IT is performing.

But identifying precisely what differentiates an operational CIO from a truly strategic one is less metrics-based and more based on the perception of IT, the profile of the CIO and the how often the CIO leads or co-innovates outside the IT department.

Just what do today's and tomorrow's strategic CIOs look like? Shaklee's Harris says: they have to be creative and excellent negotiators; they have to be out there with the business all the time, not back in their office or IT shop; and they have to be, at least to some extent, visionary--able to see beyond today and how things are done now.

Those who will be called CIOs in the future will come from anywhere and everywhere, say CIOs and analysts interviewed for this article. "People are going to flow in and out of technology as you move up the ranks in the organization," says American Airline's Ford, "rather than just having a career in the technology world." These IT leaders will still have to know technology--but a top-notch CTO will likely be any CIO's right-hand man, say CIOs.

Shurts, whose background was not predominately in IT, refers to the next generation of CIOs as being "tweeners--someone who's always been between IT and the business," he says. "To me, they are some of the most valuable people a company has, and they are people who will end up being great CIOs. But you have to grow them." Rarely does a CIO move beyond the CIO role: Kevin Turner (former CIO of Wal-Mart (WMT) and now COO of Microsoft) and Dawn Lepore (former CIO of Schwab and now CEO of Drugstore.com) are two notable examples.

But that should change in the future. Babson's Davenport recalls a research project he did in the late 1980s on aligning IT and the business. "We talked about what would be the best possible state in the future. Our conclusion was a state of pervasiveness where you could no longer tell the difference between IT people and businesspeople, and it would just be everywhere. I would say that we're closer to that with IT in some organizations, like at Google (GOOG), where everyone's an IT person."

As to American Airline's next CIO, Ford has some ideas. "Being the only position where technology is thought about or implemented is not going to be the role of the CIO in future," he says. "It's a partner role that provides a platform and leadership model for others to be able to take advantage of that of inside the corporation."

CIOs today who want to be CIOs tomorrow had better take note of the momentous changes happening all around them.

"The IT market of buyers, sellers and intermediaries has evolved all over again just like it did 10 to 12 years ago with consumers and businesses becoming increasingly expert at how to invest in IT and create value from IT," says Potts. "So the greatest danger in any environment where evolution has happened is not spotting that the evolution has happened."

Thomas Wailgum covers Enterprise Software, Data Management and Personal Productivity Apps for CIO.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @twailgum. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline. Email Tom at twailgum@cio.com.

This story, "The New New CIO Role: Big Changes Ahead" was originally published by CIO.

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