What a CIO does

cioThe chief information officer (CIO) is a job title for the board-level head of information technology within an organization. The CIO typically reports to the chief operations officer or the chief executive officer.

The Chief information officer (CIO) is one of the most unique of all corporate positions. Like all jobs, the CIO role is defined by a set of requirements and expectations specified by the management of the corporation. The problem is that CIOs can do exactly what they are asked—and still fail.

The position of a CIO is a paradox. How can a CIO be a visionary implementer of new technology and, at the same time, an operational manager whose systems never fail? How can a CIO find ways to simplify the current infrastructure and save money while adding capability and capacity to that same infrastructure? Can a CIO be a supportive business partner while driving information technology (IT) standards?

A good summary of requirements of CIO’s by K. Anderson (2007) does shed some light on this role:

 Requirement 1: Manager of people

The CIO is responsible for the overall management of the IT organization. This organization is a mixture of technical, business, and service individuals who may be full-time, part-time, contracted, or outsourced. Many of those individuals are highly technical, not necessarily customer-friendly, and cling to pieces of technology and projects like over-protective parents. Many times, technology and project review meetings begin as intellectual exercises and end as civil wars between two distinct factions.

The CIO needs to ensure that the right people are in the right jobs, create a management team that brings order but doesn’t limit creativity, and recruit/retain top IT talent. The CIO needs to clearly articulate:

  •  The purpose of IT within the enterprise
  •  The roles and responsibilities of each member of the management team
  •  The interaction between IT staff members and customers

 The CIO is a leader, recruiter, disciplinarian, negotiator, communicator, and mentor. 

“CIOs can do exactly what they are asked— and still fail.” 

Requirement 2: Manager of Infrastructure

The CIO is responsible for the management of the current IT infrastructure. While most of this infrastructure is probably the result of a previous administration’s decisions, its overall availability is critical to the success of the corporation. Documenting and understanding the current infrastructure, as well as understanding how the corporation uses it, are baseline requirements that are extended by the addition of service and support commitments.

Requirements also include a plan for obsolescence of old technology, capacity management for normal growth, and creation of a disaster-recovery plan based on corporate needs. A CIO must look for opportunities to reduce cost and simplify current infrastructure. In addition, a CIO must be a forward-thinker and be aware of any radical impacts on that infrastructure including growth, downsizing, acquisitions, or divestitures.

CIOs that provide a reliable, flexible, and cost-effective infrastructure tend to go unnoticed. Completing projects on time and within budget is expected. Responding to customer needs in a timely manner is considered business as usual. These functions, once thought strategic, now constitute entry-level requirements for any CIO.


Requirement 3: Financial Planner

Investments in IT not only improve operational performance, but also shape a corporation’s communications and interactions with employees and external partners. As a corporation continues to invest in technology, the financial planning skills of its CIO become essential to the success of its IT department. Because IT budgets are large and complex, a CIO must have the ability to manage the department as a stand-alone business. They must understand when to make strategic purchases, when to implement those purchases, and how to depreciate those assets over time. Moreover, a CIO must manage all hardware and applications as a portfolio of investments, each of which must show a significant return or be subject to obsolescence.

Requirement 4: Business Expert

CIOs need to not only establish rapport with the various departments, but also know their company’s business and industry as well as (or better than) their executive peers do. CIOs must understand their business partners’ domain and objectives as well as be able to effectively articulate how IT can help. CIOs with business savvy and technical confidence can influence business strategy and identify ways in which technology can give their corporation a competitive edge in the marketplace. That involves more than just aligning IT with the business; it involves bridging the great divide between technology and business.

 Requirement 5: International Expert

CIOs are now being asked to bridge cultural gaps between countries and societies. Global differences between technology and business perspectives are complicated by significant cultural diversity. This results in an intricate mix of requirements and expectations. Many CIOs have been managing global organizations for years and have attained a good understanding of how the global market works. Relationships created through offshoring and near-shoring development efforts and support functions can be a benefit to other business relationships. For any global initiative, understanding how other cultures work, how to communicate between time zones, and how to stay aware of the complexities of collaboration can mean the difference between failure and success.

 Requirement 6: Customer-Facing Executive

CIOs who have traditionally been internally focused are now finding themselves working directly with external customers, vendors, and suppliers. Not only are they involved in overall corporate business strategy, they are being asked to communicate that strategy in the public marketplace. Frequently, CIOs are quoted in the press and serve as guest speakers at conferences. In the past, CIOs fielded questions about technology implementation; today, they are being asked to justify their corporation’s existence in the modern marketplace.

 Requirement 7: Leader

As manager of the IT department, the CIO has direct authority to make changes regarding priorities and resource staffing. This authority allows the CIO to set clear performance expectations and processes for addressing poor performance. This authority is essential to building a competent IT organization—but does not extend to other departments.

As business leaders, CIOs must be skilled communicators who have the ability to foster strong business partnerships. Without direct authority over other departments, CIOs must understand the art of negotiation, persuasion, and influence. An effective leader understands that human relationships supersede reporting structures.


The roles and responsibilities of the CIO constitute one of the most unique corporate positions. No competing role demands such a broad range of capabilities and yet provides so little in terms of defining requirements. So let’s ask the question again: What does the CIO do? The answer is: A CIO is a manager of people, a manager of infrastructure, a financial planner, a business partner, a business expert, an international expert, a customer-facing executive, and a corporate leader.

 From the Field:

Marriott International CIO Carl Wilson on why it’s up to today’s IT leaders to teach future CIOs tomorrow’s skills (August 2007):

In the eighties successful CIOs were mostly seen as strong technologists. Many of the leading technologies of the time—MS-DOS, Apple’s  Apple’s Macintosh, IBM PCs, Windows and analog cellular phones—were designed to enable individual productivity. Reflecting the standalone nature of those technologies, companies created predominantly siloed IT functions that reported to finance or to a unique line of business, with limited cross-functional interaction. Our business peers thought of us as data processing or information systems managers and not chief information officers. IT, not the business, “owned” the technology, and we were solely responsible for making it work.

The Cross-Enterprise Era
And then, a little over a decade ago, the IT profession began to come of age with the rise of technologies such as the Web, Java programming and wired and wireless local-area networks. These tools made it economically feasible to enable business processes across functions and speed up decision making. CIOs started to look horizontally across functions and became involved in all aspects of the business. Business leaders began to see technology’s potential to integrate business processes, and they began to seriously assume their role as the ultimate owners of that technology. CIOs gained meaningful seats at the table; we were at last positioned to automate processes horizontally and achieve the real value of IT.

My experience at Mariott International mirrors these changes. I joined Marriott 10 years ago as its first CIO and an officer of the company. Our technology then was predominantly back-office. With the advent of CRM, IT moved out to the hotel front desk, enabling guest recognition. Then IT moved into the guest room with high-speed Internet access. Now with our Web reservation systems, technology is in our guests’ homes and offices. Marriott.com brings in more than $4 billion in annual revenue—that’s IT driving top-line growth. When our Chairman and CEO Bill Marriott launched his public blog Marriott on the Move earlier this year, I knew that Marriott had reached a new milestone in the power and reach of technology. His blog has had more than 175,000 hits since its launch in January of this year. The expectation that we will take care of the back-office technology has never gone away, but now we also have accountability for this broader scope of IT.

For available CIO positions take a look at Lintberg.

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