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The "I" in CIO
Our nation’s ability to innovate has long been a cornerstone of our economic success. Today, that cornerstone is being threatened as too many companies look at their IT organizations as overly costly necessities and do everything they can to keep their IT costs to a minimum. They are missing out on the major, positive, enduring impact that IT has had on some of their competitors who have seen the “I” in CIO as standing for “Innovation” and not just simply “Information.”
While a few companies have an order-to-shipment time of less than a day, most don’t. While some insurance companies can process a claim in just a few hours, most take several days. In the design, construction, and delivery of new products and services, that entire process—including its reliability, speed, and ease of use—is often determined by how wisely IT has been integrated into that process. It is only the CIOs who “get it” that see the importance of this and make it happen.
Our own research strongly shows that IT can be a powerful, enduring competitive asset. An excellent example from recent Fisher Program research: the industry-changing impact of Dawn Lepore’s tenure as CIO at Charles Schwab. Grasping the strategic power of the Internet, Lepore played a key role in 1995 in developing the company’s e-commerce platform and championing it before her boss. The Schwab.com website established the company as an e-commerce pioneer and a giant in the highly competitive new online brokerage industry.
Our research examined over a dozen similar examples involving companies such as Marriott International, Wal-Mart, American Airlines, and FedEx. These companies’ extraordinarily successful, highly innovative CIOs are what we need more of. Our conversations with many of these individuals and our monthly meetings with dozens of other CIOs support our estimate that not more than 10 percent of current CIOs are truly “innovative.” We need more—and the sooner the better.
How do we accomplish this? Many observers have described the current situation as “in transition,” which isn’t surprising given the CIO role is relatively new. To both stabilize and “elevate” that role so that “I” stands for “Innovation,” at least three things need to happen:
The three professional societies must agree on a uniform curriculum for a university-level series of courses leading to a degree in “IT Management.”
Our nation’s leading universities need to support such a curriculum, and their computer science schools, their business schools, and their “I”-schools must work together to accomplish this pretty darn quickly since they seem to have been avoiding doing this for two to three decades.
The current 90 percent or so of CIOs who still see their title’s “I” standing for “Information” must pause for a moment and give some real thought to the “professionalization” of their role. Far too few CIOs are active in any of the three professional societies. This must change quickly or neither the societies nor the universities will change, and the existing situation will continue to drift, thus continuing to endanger the innovation that is a cornerstone of our nation’s economic success.
Our nation’s CIOs are an important asset. But they need to recognize the youth and the enduring nature of the CIO role and start enabling it to more broadly have the powerful, enduring innovative impact that today far too few companies enjoy. The sooner this happens, the better.
James M. Spitze is executive director of the Fisher CIO Leadership Program at the Haas School’s Institute for Business Innovation. A longer version of his article appeared in the Wall Street Journal.