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Ambitious IT pros seek COO role

Beth Stackpole | March 19, 2014
With technology the cornerstone of most businesses, the lines are blurring between IT and operations -- leading some IT pros to think of COO as their title of choice.

The case for CIO/COO alignment

Having a closer CIO/COO connection, whether in the form of a new reporting structure or a combined role, makes particular sense in a couple of scenarios. Companies with a strategic mandate to effect operational efficiencies or those divesting assets as a result of a merger or acquisition stand to gain significantly from tighter alignment between these two roles, says Tim Stanley, a former CIO and COO and now president of Tekexecs, an executive advisory and consulting company.

Companies that have also made a significant operational investment in technology and have heavy lifting to do in the areas of IT deployment and change management would also be well served by fostering a tighter relationship between the two posts and their respective organizations, which historically have been run separately, he adds.

"The COO is often a ringleader and the accountable party to pull stuff together across areas, and IT by definition is the connective tissue and an enabler for getting stuff done," Stanley explains.

Richard Thomas, CIO at Quintiles, which helps drug and medical device companies through the process of clinical trials, says his direct reporting relationship with the COO was invaluable during a period of heavy transition back in the mid-2000s.

In addition to keeping up with the rapid-fire pace of change in the healthcare sector, Quintiles was transforming to become a global company, Thomas explains. That process involved leveraging a range of technology initiatives, including clinical systems, modern email and collaboration platforms and an ERP upgrade to enable new global processes.

At the time, the Quintiles CEO and company founder played more of an external-facing role, according to Thomas. The COO was a natural candidate to oversee IT since he had visibility across the organization and could control the pace at which things changed. "Working with the COO in such a tight partnership meant tradeoff decisions could be made in real time and with complete clarity on what the future would look like," Thomas says.

Trending: "CIO-plus" roles

In many cases, when IT and operations do converge, it's not a case of a traditional COO taking the reins of IT, but rather of an elite CIO stepping up. That's part of a broader trend to award the senior IT role more responsibility -- what some management consultants are calling "CIO-plus."

"The great CIOs are becoming more of an operator and view their role like a COO, thinking more broadly and recognizing their strategic perch in the corporate structure," says Peter High, president of Metis Strategy LLC, a boutique strategy and management consulting firm. "They are more likely to have an intimate understanding of other areas like human resources and the supply chain that arguably no other leader has, so it's logical for them to take that next step to COO."


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