Should the CIO Be Re-titled the Chief Connecting Officer? Technology Leadership Titles De-mystified

5 Min. Read

Surprisingly, the title Chief Information Officer was only invented as late as 1981. William Synnott and William Gruber first introduced the Chief Information Officer title in their 1981 book Information Resource Management: Opportunities and Strategies for the 1980s. It might come as a shock for many to know that their vision was that this role would share power with the CEO! The role's original purpose was simply to create policy and manage data-processing procedures, such were the limitations of technology in those days. It was always the expectation that this position would evolve with the changing role of technology in an organisation.

Technology, and thus the demands on technology leadership, has gone through what has been described as three major technology eras:

  • Mainframe: 60s – early 80s. Centralised processing. Focused on increasing clerical data processing speed.
  • Distributed: late 70s – early 90s. Personal computing, laptops. Gathering and analysing. Localised efficiency & automation. Centralised networking. Tech becomes a tool for communication.
  • Web: late 90s – 10s. Extension of tech beyond employee and infrastructure to customer facing applications. Proliferation of access and low barriers to entry spawned multitude of suppliers to integrate and manage. Nimble start up product companies create customer pressure on established organisations for innovation and agility.

Arguably we are now in a fourth era, that of data and Ai, where technology starts to not only assist decisions, but even drives and even takes them.

Technology has crept further and further into the fabric of organisations, to the extent that it is now a critical value lever. And so, the role of CIO has evolved. No longer confined to data processing and policy, responsibilities have grown exponentially. It is now a hugely broad and pivotal role, accountable for:

  • The efficient and secure enablement of the entire ptimizedon
  • How the ptimizedon communicates
  • Technology strategy that enables business strategy to be delivered
  • Change management and the effective and value-additive introduction of technologies
  • Data and how it is ptimized and ptimized to answer the most fundamental business questions
  • Customer technologies that can make or break a sale.

The list goes on. So, is a CIO still the right name for this role? Today the CIO role is perhaps more ‘the Chief Connecting Officer’, the conductor of a vast orchestra of business needs and ambitions, vastly different technologies and also a broad set of team capabilities required to design, build, test, deliver and support them.

Perhaps this ill-fitting CIO title is why organisations have a habit of calling their senior technology leaders any number of different things: CTO, IT Director, CDIO, CTIO, etc. The role has fundamentally changed since it’s conception, so why not change the title? A problem does arise however when organisations, CFOs, or CEOs change the title because they don’t understand the role.

IT Director, for example, may feel like a more appropriate title in a smaller organisation where perhaps Chief feels too grand. But does this convey a deeper misunderstanding of the strategic importance of the role? CDIO or Chief Information and Transformation Officer, on the other hand, are perhaps conversely attempts to try to describe a role that the CEO doesn’t believe exists yet, when often the role could be just called CIO. 

Similar confusion exists around the CTO. Often the title CTO feels better for the CEO than CIO because it has the word "technology" in it. CTO is, however, more commonly used to refer to the senior head of architecture and technology strategy. Some companies are now also using CTO to refer to someone who looks after everything technical and operational rather than strategic or project. It’s easy to see how the situation might confuse an outsider.

Ultimately, titles shouldn’t matter. What matters is that everyone fully understands the accountabilities and responsibilities of the job. They need to be clearly defined and understood by everyone and before hiring anyone. The danger in the variation and ambiguity is that it doesn’t help non-technical senior executives really understand and be comfortable with the role. And that’s a problem, especially when few CXOs actually ask for clarification.

The other obvious question is: is ‘CIO’ still just one role? We have certainly started seeing Chief Data Officers or even Chief AI Officers, pop up in the same way that Chief Digital Officers did in its heyday. There is also the question of the CISO and their reporting line.

There is no doubt that the role that is now CIO is broad and it’s also deep. It requires total understanding of every part of the organisation and yet the CIO is also expected to understand at some level, every aspect of technology. They require operational agility and focus on today, with an ability to also think and plan deep into the future. Being CIO requires introvert levels of understanding of complexity with extravert relationship and influencing skills. Arguably (and I’m sure many would argue the point) it’s the hardest job in the company, possibly second to the CEO.

Start arbitrarily splitting the role up, though, without properly mapping out accountabilities, and you invite problems. If, for example, one gives Business Product areas ownership of Product delivery, including the technology delivery, who owns the engineering capabilities, tools, career paths, the how (as opposed to the what), that is only learned from a career in technology? If one creates a Chief Digital or Data or AI officer, what specific aspects are they accountable for vs the CIO? All of these things require decisions around technology that is enterprise wide. Do these specialisms really need to sit separately, or can it sit under a leader who ensures it all hangs together?  One thing for sure, is that if there isn’t a central role joining up ALL technology in an organisation – the architecture, the ways of working, the strategy – technology will not deliver. It will also be more costly.

The consistency of role responsibilities that we see in other functional leadership positions including Finance, Commercial, Marketing, etc. and that within Technology may take generations to achieve. We may never achieve it, given how fast the goal posts move in terms of what technology is. The only things we can control are firstly, how well we educate ourselves about technology and the CIO role, and then, how well organisation design is done to ensure that the strengths of top talent are maximised.

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