Who Needs a CIO?

Opinion: It may be a thankless job, but it's a necessary one, and it's about innovation as well as maintenance.

This year along with March Madness basketball and the start of the baseball season is the apparent start of open season on CIOs. The years first bash comes from "Long Tail" author Chris Anderson. His Feb. 27 blog posting unloads on CIOs, the CIO position in companies and much of traditional corporate IT.

You can read the posting yourself, but heres an excerpt that provides some flavor: "CIOs, it turns out, are mostly business people who have been given the thankless job of keeping the lights on, IT wise. And the best way to ensure that they stay on is to change as little as possible.

"That puts many CIOs in the position of not being the technology innovator in their company, but rather the dead weight keeping the real technology innovators—employees who want to use the tools increasingly available on the wide-open Web to help them do their jobs better—from taking matters into their own hands."

As our rumor columnist, Spencer F. Katt, would say, "Meowch!"

Did Anderson happen to pull the unlucky straw that had him meeting CIOs at an especially bad conference (whew, it wasnt one of ours), or is he really on to something? Are CIOs essentially, as Anderson contends, in a glorified building maintenance job and forever engaged in thwarting innovation? Should the CIOs job really be essentially opening up a big, fat, dumb data pipe through which the company employees download, upload and sign on to services from which innovation will spring?

The answer, in my opinion, is no. I talk to a fair number of CIOs in my job and sometimes the CIO position requires being a cop, sometimes an agent of change and sometimes the guy or gal you call when the SEC is knocking on your door at 2 a.m.

CIOs spend a lot of time in the middle of arguments. The new kid out of college wants to have everybody use Skype and save "zillions" on long-distance calls or have everybody sign up for Salesforce.com and toss that old Siebel system in the trash. The corporate lawyers want everything regulated, saved and monitored. The bean-counters dont want to spend a dime on any IT project save those that keep them out of SEC scrutiny. And the boss wants to know why he cant use the new phone he bought to access his corporate e-mail.

Being in the middle is not a fun job. But there are also a couple of points to keep in mind.

For the new kid out of college: While you might not see any difference between your work life and your social life, a business does see a difference. Your best bet is to check your social life at the workplace door and punch into your business life during business hours. Companies will defend your business actions if they are within the corporate guidelines, but dont expect them to defend irresponsible actions on your part and dont expect businesses to look kindly on actions that make the corporate deep pockets accessible to competitors and lawsuit-happy lawyers. The role of the CIO is not to teach responsibility, but that lesson often falls to them by default.

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For the bean-counters: Not everything has a measurable return on investment, and few of the big things that have really have a huge ROI can be measured in advance. What was the ROI for Sony when it came up with the idea of people walking around listening to music while wearing headphones? Or for Toyotas investment in hybrid technology?

For the CEO: Your chance encounters with technology will never be as thoughtful as if you spent a couple hours each week researching and understanding the technologies that are shaping your competitors and your business. A good CIO should be your technology radar, not your technology whipping boy.

The opportunities for technology to change business are greater than ever. The proper use of technology can extend your company to new markets, make it more efficient than your competitors and turn your company green while saving money at the same time. Long Tail criticism aside, the role of the CIO is needed, but CIOs need to remember why they got into the technology business.

eWEEK magazine editor in chief Eric Lundquist can be reached at eric_lundquist@ziffdavis.com.

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