Technology, IT Performance

The times, they are a changin’—Fast!

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The line it is drawn/ The curse it is cast/ The slow one now/ Will later be fast/ As the present now/ Will later be past/ The order is rapidly fadin'/ And the first one now/ Will later be last/ For the times they are a-changin'.   -Bob Dylan

A few months ago I wrote a post on this site that speculated what the CIO of tomorrow would look like and where they would come from. I speculated that the role of the CIO would bifurcate into two paths, one a strategic, profit center leader much like a divisional president and the other a purely operational and administrative function that most closely resembles “data processing managers” of the past.  Well, it appears that we are beginning to see this happening in at least two large retailers with more likely to follow both in retail and in other industries.  As Bob Dylan sang, “The times they are a changin.’

John Dodge recently referenced the first change when Starbucks, a company that is by all accounts doing pretty well, created a Chief Digital Officer role that becomes the externally focused executive focused on using technology to drive growth and service customers.  The CIO role was relegated to an operational focus.

More recently John described the situation at retailer J.C. Penny who is struggling to reinvent itself.  Here the CIO role was completely eliminated in favor of a Chief Technology Officer who, as in the Starbucks example, is externally focused on using technology to strategically drive growth and engender customer loyalty. One assumes that the IT operations are either outsourced completely of placed under the care of a more junior manager.

So here we have a thriving company in Starbucks and a struggling one in J.C. Penny either reducing or eliminating the CIO role in favor of a single technology executive with a strategically oriented, “grow the top and bottom line” mandate.  I suspect that we will see more of this in the retail segment and in other industries as well.  There are some big lessons here.

First, if you are a sitting CIO it is time for some serious reflection and self assessment.  Some suggestions.

Are you at the table?  If you are part of the executive team, the executive committee or other senior leadership groups are you an active participant or are you largely silent, or worse, are you the guy who fixes the projector when someone’s PowerPoint’s won’t display?  If you are not a full partner, watch out.

Where do you spend your time?  Look at my Maslow’s Hierarchy for IT.  Are you spending most of your time at the bottom on operational matters and fire fighting or have you freed your self to focus on being a strategist and change agent at the top?  If you are spending time at the bottom, why?  Find and fix the problems now.  In one of my former companies I appointed the equivalent of an IT COO, a talented guy who loved operations to handle that end of the business so I could be more outwardly focused.  Strategically outsource commodity functions that someone else can do better either by sending these to an external service provider or by using the emerging SaaS and cloud offerings.  For instance, in this day and age I seriously wonder why anyone still manages an internal e-mail system.

Do you have good working relationships with your peers?  If not don’t be surprised if you have few if any defenders when discussions about your future arise between your boss and peers.

For aspiring CIOs make sure that you are being intentional about career planning and development.  Some suggestions.

If you come from a technical background take advantage of every opportunity to learn and become fluent in the language of business.  This may mean not only going back to school to get an MBA or attend one of the many intense executive development programs (mini-MBAs) offered by leading business schools but also volunteering to work on projects and task forces that enable you to work together with peers outside of IT and expose you to various parts of the business.

Check your perspective daily.  Do you see the world through the eyes of the CEO, board of directors and key functional business leaders or do you view everything through the prism of technology.  To truly succeed in tomorrow’s world you need to be able to do both.  You also need to be “bilingual.”  You need to be able to speak technology AND business.  The best CIOs, because they are fluent in each, are effective “translators” being able to take complex technical issues and “translate” them into easy to understand language for their non-technical colleagues and vice versa.

Finally, help others be successful.  As motivational speaker Zig Ziglar is fond of saying, “You can get everything in life you want if you help others get what they want.”  Look out for the best interest of the company.  Don’t fall victim to being a victim and don’t succumb to “IT groupthink” where excuses for why innovative initiatives can’t be done are the norm.  See my post on Do your homework! for some example.

One of my favorite verses in the Bible is found in Luke 12:48, ”From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked” (NIV).  That really sums up the state of the CIO today.  The capabilities that IT enables today are enormous.  That is the “much that has been given.”  The question for CIOs and those who aspire to be CIOs is are you up to what is being asked?  


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Paul Calento 255 Points | Tue, 03/27/2012 - 15:32

CTOs driving retail innovationseem to be a trend. Consider social/e-commerce website Their CEO, Chad Dickerson, started as their CTO. (I worked with Chad at InfoWorld in the mid-2000's and he's one of those tech pros with a combination of tech experience & business acumen). The key to Dickerson's success is that he knows the businesses he works for. Can the same be true for every tech exec?

--Paul Calento

(note: I work on projects sponsored by and HP)


Joel Dobbs 339 Points | Tue, 03/27/2012 - 23:35

Well said, Paul.  Being fluent in the language of business and the language of your company's business are essentials for every executive at the officer level. No exceptions for CIOs. 

Pearl Zhu 90 Points | Mon, 03/26/2012 - 18:19

Hi, Joe, thanks for summarizing a tale of two retailers' CIO story last week, I would say, it well reflect the CHANGE at the age of post digitization: the business change --no matter retailer, transportation, ., etc, now, essentially, all businesses are in the digital business, and technology are the key to their success; and leadership change, CIO is just happpened to be such a crucial role, possibly the most debatable executive role these days to perceive the change, and execute the changes.

'Well, change may always be good for long term, the forward looking business should take technology more serious than ever, and visionary CIO may just need see the world via both the business and technology lens, CIO need be one of the most influential leadership role to make impact on busienss and society. thanks.

Joel Dobbs 339 Points | Tue, 03/27/2012 - 01:04

You are exactly right Pearl, all businesses are digital businesses. Not many exceptions these days.

Christian Verstraete 429 Points | Mon, 03/26/2012 - 17:31

Joel, I can only agree with you. First of all, I really like Bob Dylan and the song you choose in particular has been with me for ages, both in english and french. But secondly, and more seriously, I indeed see two types of CIO appear. I'm not sure it's always intentional, but I see some that get at the table with top management and demonstrate great added value way beyond their field of interest by demonstrating how IT helps addressing business issues. Others in the mean time are still in denial mode and bypassed more and more by the actual events.

Your point around the CTO strikes a cord. When I got the role of chief technologist I looked at what a CTO was supposed to do, and although some still see him as a technology nerd, increasingly it is the combination of technology awareness and business accumen that becomes key to the role, and key to the enterprise. That's the type of people we increasingly need, but greatly miss in many occasions.

Joel Dobbs 339 Points | Tue, 03/27/2012 - 01:03

Did Dylan really record it in French?  Missed that one.  Bob Dylan in many ways is really the poet laureate of my generation.  He is truly one of a kind.


Back to the subject!  The “O” in CTO implies a much larger, more strategic and impactful role because this person is by definition an officer of the corporation.  I agree that a true CTO is a combination of a highly competent technologist and a seasoned executive.  That, at least today, is a rare combination I’m afraid.  Too often one gets one without the other. 


Christian Verstraete 429 Points | Thu, 03/29/2012 - 15:01

No Dylan did not record in French, but he had an excellent singer who translated and sang his songs in French. He is called Hugues Aufray and sang many of Dylan's songs. If you are interested in some more about him, just read

Paul Muller 119 Points | Mon, 03/26/2012 - 16:39

From Spinal Tap to Dylan, we're in danger of Google believing that we're a music blogger site! :-)

Seriously though, I agree with your point, I had lunch with a friend who also happens to be a respected analyst who's great frustration is that he sees times changing and fears for the CIOs and IT leaders who are planning on doing tomorrow what got them paid today and are in real danger of waking up to find themselves working in the food services industry (no disrespect to those great folks, his example was to illustrate the issue of relevance not competence).

This gets us back to teh topic of management of organisational change, your question implies that the leader themselves may not know they need to change....

Joel Dobbs 339 Points | Tue, 03/27/2012 - 00:55

You are right, Paul.  I fear that a lot of folks are simply oblivious what is happening around them.  They go about their daily routines without realizing that everything around them is changing.  We see this in the way many IT departments react to the proliferation of consumer devices and the potential opportunities they present.  Instead of seeing the potential, too many I fear, see only a threat and as a result seek to block progress instead of embracing it and facilitating positive change. As the old saying goes, “If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.”


John Dodge 1535 Points | Mon, 03/26/2012 - 15:55

Good advice, always. I especially like your line: "The capabilities that IT enables today are enormous." What IT provides is soooooo overlooked. Instead, we focus on the bad things IT is doing...or what they should be doing.

Here's an interesting thread on the CIO Forum on LinkedIn...

"Mobile Means the End of Enterprise IT (And Therefore the CIO)"  

Nonsense or spot on? The comments seem to favor continued viability of the CIO.

Joel Dobbs 339 Points | Mon, 03/26/2012 - 17:56

Interesting discussion.   In the end I'm not sure what the job will be called. As we discussed in another post, in some organizations the title may have such a bad rap that they discard it.  What is clear is that the role itself is rapidly evolving.  I really like the "organic" gardening analogy.  I believe that may actually accurately describe the future state of the role pretty well.

Paul Muller 119 Points | Tue, 03/27/2012 - 01:36

Yup, the problem is that some folks over simplify reality in order ot make pretty PPT charts. Arguing that cloud means no-more-CIO is like a hardware company arguing that they don't need a COO because they've outsourced everything to a contract manufacturer. 

It's not just wrong, it's dangerously wrong.

John Dodge 1535 Points | Mon, 03/26/2012 - 20:29

I mean what is a chief executive officer, really? Remember what Perry White said? "Don't call me chief!"   

John Dodge 1535 Points | Mon, 03/26/2012 - 20:29

I mean what is a chief executive officer, really? Remember what Perry White said? "Don't call me chief!"