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CIO role: Is IT facing a leadership crisis?

Meridith Levinson | Oct. 24, 2011
David Reynolds wants to be a CIO, and the 35-year-old systems manager for the Rhode Island Blood Center may well be on his way.

"We're starting to see more and more CIOs who are not traditional technologists," says Forrester's Kark. "We estimate anywhere from 60 to 65 percent of CIOs still have a strong technology background, but that number has been decreasing over the years."

Kark believes the number of CIOs who have a traditional technology background is decreasing because it's no longer necessary in an era when third parties are taking over management of IT infrastructure.

Ellen Barry, the former CIO of Chicago's Metropolitan Pier & Exposition Authority, thinks more CIOs may come from other business functions in the future because those individuals will have had more life experience--and thus greater comfort--with technology than previous generations of executives. She points to the omnipresence of technology in the lives of middle- and upper-class kids. Having grown up with technology, they understand its capabilities and will be able to envision innovative ways to use it in business. "They're not intimidated by technology," she says. "If that's the case, we may see more people from the business side coming over."

There are plenty of executive recruiters who see CIOs without IT backgrounds as an aberration.

"There are some non-IT people who become CIOs. They are examples of where IT is broken and needs to be connected to the business, and they help bridge the gap," says Mark Polansky, managing director of Korn/Ferry International's North America Information Technology Officers Center of Expertise. "They are the exceptions and not the rule."

Pappalardo doesn't believe a business executive can simply replace a CIO. "CIOs are facilitating business every day," he says. "Real products, real ideas are going around the globe because of IT, not because of finance or anything else. That's a special talent, and we need more of it."

What's more, Pappalardo doesn't think appointing a CFO or any other business executive into a CIO role is a sound long-term strategy. "I understand why companies do it," he says. "In an economy like this, it may be a good [short-term] strategy for companies that are specifically looking at saving money, are being bought out, or experienced some hiccup in their performance. It's cheaper, but it's not the most creative thing. They're not getting the best technical thinking."

Perhaps not surprisingly, Pappalardo, Polansky and others are confident that the next generation of IT leaders will continue to come out of IT.

IT Departments Will Remain a Breeding Ground for New CIOs

The changes IT departments are currently undergoing--spurred by outsourcing, cloud computing, shifting business demands and consumer technologies in the enterprise--are giving IT professionals the experiences they need today to be great CIOs tomorrow.

Consider the IT professionals at Ministry Health Care, a system of hospitals and clinics in Wisc. CIO Will Weider says a large pipeline of future IT leaders exists in his 250-person IT organization. If an IT leadership position were to open up inside his shop tomorrow, he says he has people "who could step in right away and be very effective."

 

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