Thornton May: The future will need CIOs

Thornton May: The future will need CIOs

For the CIO job, things are going to get bigger, better and different on a massive scale.

Several weeks ago, a group of enterprise CIOs gathered to celebrate the 32nd birthday of CIO-ness. That's right, the "chief information officer" job title is 32 years old.

There are several origin myths associated with the CIO position floating around our industry, but all of them roughly place the moment of CIO conception as sometime during 1981. I asked the hundred-plus CIOs in attendance to think back to what they were doing when they were 32. Doing pattern recognition on the responses revealed much. The most important observation was that by age 32, the executives in the room emphatically concluded that their careers were not over. They unanimously agreed that from age 32, their jobs got bigger, better and different.

We should all be able to conclude with equal certainty that at age 32, CIO job is not over either. Not even close. Things are going to get bigger, better and different on a massive scale.

But for some reason, subscription research firms in our industry insist that the role of the CIO is in decline and will soon be relegated to the dust heap of history. This is patently absurd. Think about it. We are on the cusp of a digital renaissance. Yet the CIO will have no role to play in the new era that is dawning?

The boffins at Cisco and GE prophesy that "waking up" the things of our lives (that's the action at the root of what is referred to as the Industrial Internet and the Internet of Things) has the potential of unleashing $14.4 trillion in economic value. Peter Weill and his merry band of geniuses at the MIT Sloan School of Management's Center for Information Systems Research are deep into research describing the various paths by which modern enterprises are becoming digitized. Scholars at Oxford University forecast that by 2033, 47% of the jobs in America may be eliminated by computerization.

You don't have to be a crystal-ball-packing futurist to know that IT is going to be a big part of whatever comes next. No one doubts that technology is going to be a big part of the future. Why do so many people think the CIO is going to disappear just when the party starts to get interesting?

I'm not saying that every CIO should be at that party. I admit that there are a few bad apples in the CIO bushel basket. They are the folks who interview well, last about 18 months and then slink off quietly to destroy value at some other unsuspecting enterprise, leaving the organization that hired them (and the poor worker bees in the IT department) to clean up their mess. But the vast majority of CIOs are amazing. They understand the business better than just about anyone else. They have mad relationship skills and actually care about their people. They are wicked smart and scary funny. I am so tired of academics, consultants and vendors beating the "they only speak geek" drum. The empirical evidence does not support this misconception.

The path ahead is exciting and requires leadership. To posit, ad hominem, that incumbent CIOs are wholly not up to the myriad and constantly morphing tasks associated with a rapidly digitizing civilization is a fallacy being foisted upon enterprises by revenue-scrounging executive search firms. They should be ashamed. It is ludicrous to believe that by importing a digital shaman (a.k.a. a chief digital officer), an enterprise will be able to realize the full fruits of the technology buffet set before us.

The reality is -- just as it has been for the past 32 years -- that organizations get the IT they deserve.

Thornton A. May is author of The New Know: Innovation Powered by Analytics and executive director of the IT Leadership Academy at Florida State College in Jacksonville. You can contact him at or follow him on Twitter ( @deanitla).

Read more about management in Computerworld's Management Topic Center.

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