Technology, IT Performance

CTO or CIO: it's the former at J.C. Penney

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The J.C Penney Company (JCP), a $20 billion company, has opted for a CTO instead of CIO. 

On Jan. 18, JCP named Kristen E. Blum as Chief Technology Officer and executive vice president. Her appointment resulted in the elimination of the CIO position held by Ed Robben, who left the company this month. The elimination of the CIO position was revealed in a memo sent out by Blum to the JCP IT staff. 

"As our Company continues to transform, we must continue to look at the organization to ensure we have the right structures to ensure efficiency and productivity.  I wanted to let you all know that as a result, Ed Robben's position has been eliminated.  I know you will join me in wishing him all the best in his future endeavors and thanking him for all of his contributions to jcp," the memo read. JCP did not return calls and messages seeking comment. 

For the vast majority of companies, the CIO title is just fine. It's a you say `toMAHtoe' and I say `toeMAYtoe' proposition. But there is perception that CTO scouts new technologies and is more focused on innovation. A bit retro, the CIO tends to the home fires, namely enterprise infrastructure. We have robust discussion on CIO v. CTO based on a Quick Post I did last September.

And a good tick list on the these differences can be found in a 2008 TechRepublic blog post. CIO: "Serves as the company’s top technology infrastructure manager." CTO: "Serves as the company’s top technology architect." 

So is this the message JCP intended to send - that Blum would be more focused on innovation than IT infrastructure? Will Penney floor personnel soon be checking out customers on iPads instead of stationary cash registers? Does the elimination of the JCP CIO position portend a trend we regularly read about?

Well, we're left to speculate. JCP media did not return several calls to comment on the story, but the memo was sent to me by a JCP insider wondering "where'd the CIO go? He just got here." Robben, according to his LinkedIn page, held the post for just over a year. He did not respond to inquiries for comment sent via Facebook and LinkedIn.

But it's no sceret that the struggling retailer is revamping under new CEO Ron Johnson, a hotshot executive who is credited with launching Apple's fabulously successful retail stores. Johnson has been creating his own team, has implemented cost controls and has been trying to transform the JCP brand. Indeed, the company said in Jan. it wants to cut $900 million in expenses within two years. That means job cuts s and store closures.

For her part, Blum is a CIO in everything but name only - a CIO's CIO if you will. Most recently, she was a CIO and SVP, chief information officer, Enterprise Transformation at PepsiCo and held the CIO post at Abercrombie & Fitch. The word "transformation" alone strongly suggests she will adopt the role of chief innovation officer more than chief infrastructure officer.  

She also directed the supply chain, international retail and global technology at Apple and served in "merchandising, planning and allocation" roles at Planet Hollywood, Walt Disney and Victoria's Secret. "She is a member of the National Retail Federation's CIO Council and a Governing Body Member of the CIO Summit, among other leadership roles in CIO-focused organizations," according to the press release announcing her hiring at JCP.

You can't get much more CIO than that. Perhaps, she wanted a new title or someone at JCP wanted her to have one. `ToeMahtoe, ToeMAYtoe,' I say. She has her work cut out for her. 

One other thing I wondered is if Johnson maybe brought the going CIO-less idea from Apple. That does not appear likely given that Blum report to JCP COO Mike Kramer and Apple has had the same CIO since 1997 in Niall O', that's CIO longevity!

Given JCP's cost cutting mood, it's safe to assume that there wasn't room for both a CTO and CIO. 

If only the JCP folks would call me back and clear it all up for us!?

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George Kenez
Gyorgy Kenez 11 Points | Sat, 03/31/2012 - 14:41

I’m coming from a country where the following scenario is an everyday move, at least as I see this one. Most likely the new leader doesn’t want to work with a former executive so she changes the structure of the organization and let the other executive go. This is that simple.

Regarding the CTO vs. CIO debate I think the problem with a non technological company is that the non IT assets of such companies are large and need a technologically apt person to manage them. However, this doesn’t mean that he can also manage the company’s IT systems, especially at a rapid pace those are changing. Or if she can, then her knowledge of the retailer (or other core) systems is failing. In special cases, of course the two competencies can coincide but this requires that the person be with the company for years.

John Dodge 1535 Points | Mon, 04/02/2012 - 18:40

Welcome to the ECF, Gygory. I think you are right. There were organizational changes to which the titles were incidental. But when we see CIO itile dropped, it catches our attention. I wonder how similar or different the CIO role is in Hungary compared to the U.S. Enlighten us, please.

George Kenez
Gyorgy Kenez 11 Points | Fri, 04/06/2012 - 10:05

I don’t want to go into politics, at least not in everyday politics. But…

The situation I referred to is when a regime changes, then all upper level management is changing too. This is a well-known scenario, especially in the 19th century all the western democracies suffered from the spoils system (mainly the US). Though it isn’t unknown today, generally the democracy favors people selection based on competency.

In our country the spoils system seems to revive todays: people are selected not for their competence but for their commitments. This makes the whole governmental system a mess, and also reaches the private sector.

The CIO role isn’t different, IMO in Hungary compared to what we see in the US. The ITC technology changes so rapidly, that the differences between the US and the rest of the World are negligible. So are the organizations too.

The scenario I described is not a new one, it can happen at all CxO or even at lower levels, and this is a known management tool. Eliminate a position, fire the one who was in charge then, and restructure the organization, create new positions and let your people in for that position. Here even whole companies were eliminated for being able to fire the president of that company. Then merged with another company, under a new name a new president was selected. Though not pretty but very efficient technology…

Jerry Bishop 100 Points | Fri, 03/23/2012 - 17:43

I've chewed on this a bit and feel like I am no better for having done so. I am not sure the CIO-CTO debate has as much relevance today as it once did. I always associated the CTO with more of an R&D or architecture role than simply the technology.

But I do see that although the information is a source of intelligence, I imagine technology is being seen more as a source for innovation. And so if one has to choose, I would expect more business to favor innovation over intelligence (that sounds bad doesn't it?). 

IN this particular case, John's account sounds more like the decision was just a practical matter where someone had to go and the choice had less to do with the title.

Mark Grindle 4 Points | Thu, 03/22/2012 - 19:52

I have to say that I've seen many companies with CTOs and CIOs as peers and I've never fully understood it. Yes, sometimes it is just to manage scope and sometimes they are focused on different "agendas" but sometimes I see a lot of overlap. In my simplistic view, there should be only one IT leader and they need to be held accountable for meeting the needs of the business. Whether, those needs are infrastructure, innovation, or both or soemthing else. Of course, we all know how powerful words can be and sometimes a title helps the organization understand what their focus truly should be at a point in time.

Of course, having been a CIO and CTO, I can attest to the stereotypes of each. CTOs, yes they can be thought of as innovators but they can also be thought of as residing in an "ivory tower" with no understanding of reality. CIOs can be thought of as operational or they can be thought of as Business focused. I guess it's more the person than the title for me.

Paul Calento 255 Points | Thu, 03/22/2012 - 16:24

In September, John Dodge posed an interesting question, "What is the difference between the CIO and CTO?". Martin Palmgren, Balaji Prasad and Creagh Warren weighed in with some interesting insights. The queston also received 9 responses on the LinkedIn CIO Network.

The implications of CIO vs. CTO titles speak to where an organization sees the value coming from ... not necessarily the specific duties. For CTOs, in particular, there seems to be a wide band of potential job descriptions.

What I find most interesting is that at a time when most organizations find the value of their DATA/INFORMATION to be the most critical resource, a CTO-title implies that TECHNOLOGY itself is a differentiator. Certainly that's hard to argue with retail.

There's been a growing belief that technology has grown commoditized. Perhaps this was premature.

--Paul Calento

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

Doug Goddard 123 Points | Thu, 03/22/2012 - 15:15

There are different ways one can interpret this sort of decision. For example, one might interpret it as a slap in the face to the IT function, essentially saying that IT, in the person of the CIO, is no longer part of corporate strategy or corporate governance since presumably a more technical CTO would not be involved in that. He or she isn't really part of the C-level executive in the same way a CIO is. On the other hand, one may argue that IT is now so important in that organization that the CEO is really the CIO and the CTO is his main contact to IT. From a governance perspective, one also wonders why this couldn't be handled through a reallocation of decision rights, one reflecting a new corporate strategy, as opposed to a dismantling of the corporate hierarchy. That smacks a little of politics to me. I know CIOs are often criticized for either being out of touch with technology, or not speaking the language of the C-level, but without knowing any of the details, something smells a little fishy to me. 

John Dodge 1535 Points | Thu, 03/22/2012 - 17:04

Good analysis, Doug. Penney's does not think the move is worth clarifying... The story also made







Doug Goddard 123 Points | Thu, 03/22/2012 - 20:06

Too bad they will not comment. It would be interesting to understand why they think the CIO role is not a structure which ensures "efficiency and productivity."

John Dodge 1535 Points | Thu, 03/22/2012 - 21:52

Damn, I tried! It's unusual that such innocuous requests be THAT ignored. Sure, a no comment maybe, but not returning the calls leaves one with a distinct no one's home impression.

Joel Dobbs 339 Points | Wed, 03/21/2012 - 21:17

I agree with Martin that this seems to be more a matter of semantics.  Regardless of what they call the position, the fact that the focus is on innovation is a positive in my eyes and shows a lot of forward thinking on the part of JCP’s senior leadership.    Having said this, I agree with Martin again on the fact that they probably chose the wrong of the two titles!


As I think about this I wonder if a history of non-strategic, operationally focused CIOs may have “poisoned the well” as far as the CIO title goes.  I don’t know the folks involved but there could be, both here and perhaps at other companies as well, a stigma attached to the CIO title based on past bad experiences that result in future incumbents being given a different title to assume a more strategic role.  


Martin Davis 131 Points | Wed, 03/21/2012 - 20:42
Are they really eliminating the CIO position or just renaming it? I disagree with one of your comments John, I would normally think of the CIO as the business facing piece and the CTO as technology leadership.
John Dodge 1535 Points | Thu, 03/22/2012 - 13:44

There's so many ways to interpret titles....pretty meaningless debate all things being said. Like Joel says, it's semantics. The individual in the role is the one who makes a difference - or not. JCP obviously did not care enough to talk about it. Obviously tech oversight was going to left to one C whatever O.

The challenge is transforming the JCP brand while undergoing deep cost cuts. I was thinking this morning that equipping floor salespeople with iPads would be darned expensive. Money well spent? Would that transform JCP into greater profitability?