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?