CIOs alive and thriving

A few years ago, at a conference that Information Age helped to organise, I witnessed a brief exchange of views that has stuck in my mind ever since.

A senior salesman from a top US software company asked a question of one of the panelists, the IT director of a blue-chip company. What, the salesman asked, was the best way of bypassing the IT director in order to negotiate directly with the CEO, who, in the questioner’s firm opinion, was the ultimate IT decision-maker?

Now it seemed to many of us that this was a rash question to ask, especially in front a number of influential IT directors. There seemed to be subtext to his inquiry: “I don’t want to talk to you, you monkey, I want to talk to the organ grinder.” The IT director’s response proved us right. He simply said that any foolhardy salesman who did manage to get to the CEO would simply get referred back to him, the IT director, where the salesman could be sure to receive a cool reception.

A few weeks back, I recalled this brief exchange when I found myself in a room with various technology suppliers discussing IT projects. One of the suppliers announced that her company had decided to focus more on the financial director as the IT decision-maker. These people hold the real power, she said, and what’s more, they actually understand IT these days.

Anyone who has ever had the opportunity to listen in to discussions among IT marketers will know that such opinions are not unusual. For at least a decade, and probably longer, they have questioned how much power the IT manager or IT director or chief information officer (CIO) actually holds.

Opinion tends to swing according to the times. Certainly, there was a period around 2002 and 2003 when many IT directors were called on to justify huge investments that had proved of little benefit to the business. That, inevitably, meant new investments needed to be more rigorously justified, often with the help of the finance director. Seeing this new, unsmiling face at the negotiating table, red pen in hand, many suppliers assumed that power had irrevocably shifted away from the discredited technologist.

Occasionally, one IT supplier or another forms such a firm opinion on this that they redraft their marketing strategy: advertising budgets are retargeted at financial magazines, the golf courses are stalked for financial directors, and the baffled bean-counters (or spreadsheet visionaries?) are suddenly invited to cosy breakfast briefings and intimate strategy dinners.

It is not just the finance directors who are feted in this way. With so much focus today on the alignment of business and IT, many suppliers have returned to the old-time thinking that the real organ grinder is the ‘line of business’ manager, or in smaller businesses, the CEO. IT is a strategic issue, the thinking goes, and strategy is the preserve of the big bosses.

As the editorial director of Information Age, I admit to a certain vested interest in this discussion. Indeed, two to three years ago, this magazine was self-consciously pitched directly at the CIO or IT director, who in our minds was the lynchpin of all IT decision-making. Today, as a direct result of our own reappraisal, it is more loosely targeted at any senior executive or strategist with an interest in improving their business through the use of IT.

Even so, this whole discussion has, to me, always seemed to be unnecessarily complicated, since there has never been any big mystery about how IT decisions are made. In almost every organisation, large or small, public or private, a small committee makes the buying decisions. The CEO or line of business manager will usually, but not always, be involved, and the finance director is often there too; but the head of IT, or their representative, always plays a central role.

The mystery in all this is why anyone would find that surprising. But the simple truth is that the suppliers simply don’t like it very much. They believe that many IT directors have over-reacted to their past indulgences by cutting back hard on spending in order to protect their positions. Related to this, there is also a now-common misconception that IT directors are no longer completely trusted.

Both views are simplistic and wrong. On the whole, the management teams at organisations that spent too much on IT in the past recognise that they made a collective mistake. In any case, the IT director or CIO is no longer a ‘techie’ that does not properly understand business, but a business-savvy operational manager with responsibilities for crucial functions. Bypassing the IT director and going to the CEO is like trying to sell the euro to the Prime Minister without asking the Chancellor. Occasionally it might work, but the results would be messy for all concerned.

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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