CIOs must learn to deal with the heat, or get out of the water
In the phenomenon of the boiling frog, systems thinkers have given us a useful - if scientifically inaccurate - metaphor for a certain kind of human behaviour that throws some light on the plight of today's CIOs. Throw a frog into a pot of boiling water, the metaphor says, and it will immediately jump out. Place the frog instead into a pot of lukewarm water and slowly turn up the heat and it will float there quite placidly until it boils to death.
Translated into a theory of human behaviour, the metaphor seeks to highlight how people given long enough to become acclimatized to some policy or state of affairs (say the ubiquity of technology in business today) come to accept it without ever examining its likely impact and implications for the future.
Gartner Fellow Marianne Broadbent worries that too many in the business community right now are behaving like a bunch of frogs dreamily floating in water growing hotter and hotter by the minute, not realizing how critical their CIOs are to making sure they do not cook. Some CIOs also might not realize just how much their environment has changed. Now both sides must learn to deal with the heat, or get out of the water.
Broadbent believes the past five years has seen information technology permeate organizations; but like the frog in water, the business community has simply failed to realize just how fast the temperature is rising. CIOs have spent that period moving to become much more a part of the business. They appreciate - usually more clearly than their business colleagues - how technology transformation is relentlessly applying the heat. That vests them with critical transformative potential.
But the CIO who cannot adapt and become what Broadbent and colleague Ellen Kitzis call a "new CIO leader" - by solidifying their credibility with the executive team and bridging the chasm that currently separates business and IT strategy - may be dooming himself or herself to virtual irrelevance and putting their business on the threatened species list.
Unlike frogs, of course, who actually do jump out of the water when things get too hot, it is those who stay in the water and learn to adapt to the heat that are likely to survive and thrive.
In their new book, The New CIO Leader: Setting the Agenda and Delivering Results, Broadbent and Kitzis, who is group vice president of Gartner's Executive Programs, argue that CIOs today stand at a crossroads, their role inevitably transforming under both the ubiquitous presence of technology in organizations and the recent technology downturn. CIOs will have to respond or else risk consigning themselves to oblivion. "They can seize the moment to leverage their expertise into a larger and more strategic role than ever before," as the authors put it, "or they can allow themselves to be relegated to the sideline function of 'chief technology mechanic'."
Broadbent and Kitzis believe two colliding perspectives on IT are putting CIOs under pressure. On the one hand, business retains the sense of disaffection with IT engendered by the Internet bust, the technology capital spending overhang, the popular press's assertion that IT is now irrelevant in discussions of competitive advantage, and the hysteria about IT jobs moving overseas. On the other hand, business interest in IT is growing anew as business executives cry out for innovation in the face of a reviving economy; as the regulatory environment puts far more emphasis on the timeliness, completeness and accuracy of corporate information, and as technology increasingly plays a foundational, if not a central, role in virtually every product and service.
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