Mission Impossible

Mission Impossible

A delegate at the recent CIO Informat conference made the interesting observation that he didn't exist; at least not anywhere on corporate spreadsheets. There was no IT budget at his company to speak of. Rather, he was a functionary of the business units.

I suspect he is not alone among the great wash of IT professionals. I felt some obvious sympathy for him because, although I still register as a blip on the corporate radar screen, my budget has to be negotiated through a minefield of five business line managers and one managing director, each with their own agendas and personalities.

Likewise, I suspect that this same delegate, who lives only to serve, probably has his managing director breathing down his neck and demanding he take more of a decisive leadership role in the enterprise. There's the rub. To succeed in business today the CIO has to balance two separate and occasionally irreconcilable forces -- leadership and service.

How can you drive change within your organisation when your department's very existence is sustained by the whim of the people very often most resistant to change. In my darker moments, I've sometimes wondered whether this latest spate of outsourcing is really just the middle managers' revenge for BPR.

Either way, we live in interesting times. While I'd like to claim credit for this remarkable insight about leadership and service, I actually read it in a recent edition of ComputerWorld (March 20 page 38). According to the author, Allen Alter: "Being a leader includes go-get-'em actions: spotting and seizing business opportunities and increasing shareholder value and profits. That's all-important; but the list has a giant blind spot. It leaves out something solid IS professionals feel deep in their bones: that the primary job of IS is to serve the business."Part of the problem also lies in the Australian interpretation of service.

Unlike the US, where the notion of service is highly valued, our English heritage tends to leave us equating service with servitude. And even if we as IS executives can rise above such linguistic quandaries and view service as "usefulness", often we suspect the people we serve cannot.

It's this conflict between service and leadership which I think has given rise to the emerging demarcation between the role of the CIO and that of the MIS manager. By splitting the primary function of IS into two roles, companies have overcome this unfortunate dichotomy.

Interestingly enough, this year's CIO Salary Survey bears out this emerging split, as demonstrated in the graph on page 42. For me, this clearly shows that CIOs are viewed as qualitatively different from IT managers by their companies.

This split is proving to be pervasive, showing up across the marketplace from the smallest to the largest of companies.

It belies the notion, held by some of the more sceptical members of the vendor community, that CIO is just an inflation of a title designed to pander to the ego of traditional IT managers. Indeed, I had this very debate with a colleague at a Christmas party last year. I note with some irony that it is this vendor's top customers who are most proactive about creating the CIO role.

Andrew Birmingham is the CIO of IDG Communications. He can be reached at

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