If you recall the 90s in IT and business then you probably remember the early introduction of the role dubbed the CIO. Chief Information Officer began as the first crossover role where business was leading technology initiatives which bridged a gap that was very prominent. IT was known then primarily as a cost centre. The necessary evil of an organization that often saw technology as only a minimal part of the success of business initiatives.
Early CIOs were often business leasers that almost grudgingly took the role which was often not clearly defined and without much strength in the ability to really drive change. This led to many early push back against technology teams at the same time that distributed systems were being deployed at a rapid pace. This was the change in the way businesses were consuming IT, but there was still a strange resistance to it.
Career Is Over
There were many people who joked (with a little too much seriousness) that CIO stood for Career Is Over. Being a CIO was regarded as the death knell where you were attached to some “special project” like a general ledger update or massive information management project that would inevitably go over budget and over time on delivery. That said, it was the start of the journey towards creating what we now see as a crucial, transformational role in an organization.
My experiences with CIOs in the 90s and 2000s was positive as I watched IT initiatives go from being seen as expensive and wasteful (both from cost and people time) to being heralded as a key differentiator to move ahead of the competition. There were some early missteps as the cultural acceptance of fundamental change was low. It felt like nobody wanted to be the first one to succeed, so there was resistance and slowness about the changes. Then the early winners began showing their value and sharing their stories. A new generation of CIO was about to be born.
Chief Information Officer
The mainframe was still the foundation of many large firms. The distributed systems teams were now outpacing both server and people growth relative to any other part of the business. Developers went from being COBOL and more classical development environments to embracing new tools and techniques. We could suddenly move processing and interaction with this vast pool of data out to the distributed environment. Message Queues became the hot tech as more and more front-end to back-end systems interactions were happening.
The workforce was becoming mobile, and the customers were creating the need for new experiences. There was no turning back. This was the new greenfield for a CIO. Data and information were becoming the differentiator. You went from tapping on terminals in a green screen to interacting through web-based applications to the very same data that lived inside a 3270 terminal.
CIOs through the 2000s were creating and implementing new ways to spend money in technology that was seemingly high upfront costs that netted 10x value after a couple of years with new systems. The CIO role was becoming a key figure in the growth and speeding up of business adoption of technology with clear and measurable benefit. This was happening at the same time that the world watched the markets crater after the dot-com bust at the start of the decade.
There was also an interesting change in the duration of the stay for a CIO. It was often seen as a temporary gig (18-24 months) and if no benefit was being observed by the 6 month mark, that could have signalled the rapid end to a stay in a company. Later into the decade saw CIOs executing on big change initiatives in cycles.
What this did create was the opportunity for what we now call the transformational CIO heading into 2010 and beyond. These were the designated hitters of the business industry who came in when needed, aimed to clear the bases and bring in a home run, then went on to another game to do it again. The CIO was now able to be transformational inside, and also could become a dedicated and roaming opportunity. The resistance was lowering to accepting change. The game was what was changing.
Chief Innovation Officer
Take a look at the stories we are seeing across the industry today. There has been a profound effect on business with the aggressive and effective use of technology to truly innovate the way business moves and adapts. Sometimes it’s even difficult to tell which side, business or IT, is disrupting which. IT is no longer a cost centre, it’s an innovation centre. Business leaders of today have grown their careers alongside the mainstreaming of technology in every area of an organization.
The CIO as defined in the powerful narrative of the book The Phoenix Project and across our industry as someone who will remove bottlenecks and push past “how we always did it” to the way it should be done.
CIO = Career Is Over? Not anymore. CIO = Critical Innovation Opportunity is more like it.