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On what seems like a weekly basis, we see new technologies – from wearables to eye-tracking smartphones – emerge and promise to wedge their way into business environments. Unfortunately, most firms will struggle to build on and benefit from these IT innovations.

The presence of a CIO might be to blame.

In a troubling number of organizations, the CIO is left to oversee the majority of decisions pertaining to IT, while the rest of the executive team gets a free pass on their technological incompetence. As technology becomes the epicenter of almost all business functions, technophobic C-suites are stifling their companies’ potential.

We’ve seen that the sheer presence of a CIO often enables the rest of the C-suite’s tech ignorance. When corporate hierarchy defines a role under which IT decisions can be siloed, executives are prone to deflect even the simplest technology decisions to that silo, or worse, make their own decisions separate from the rest of the company. Relegating all things IT to the CIO perpetuates the belief that technological literacy is an exclusive realm, rather than one the executive team or entire business should occupy.

Much of the modern executive tech knowledge gap can be attributed to historical perceptions of IT as a highly specialized field unfathomable to all but a select few. As we’ve seen with mobile devices and SaaS applications, consumers and end users are driving technology change in the workplace today – not just IT specialists.

In spite of these systemic issues, it’s probably not time to bid your CIO farewell yet. The CIO’s role is safe, given that few executive counterparts currently possess the skillset required to independently make sound IT decisions, and fewer organizations foster the cross-departmental collaboration needed to take advantage of new technology. Similarly, many organizations still run on complex legacy IT systems, and expertise in maintaining and securing old yet critical code is scarce. Nevertheless, we feel the long-term outlook for the CIO’s role is bleak.

Firms can’t wait for their executive IT deficiencies to correct themselves; they need a smarter approach to executive hiring, including efforts to screen for technological competence. We’ve seen businesses recruit solely based on years of experience or industry connections. Instead, organizations should broaden their criteria to include younger candidates who have spent most of their lives around technology. In order to build a C-suite full of confident IT leaders, companies should invest in individuals who already possess a natural affinity for technology in their personal and professional lives.

Even in organizations that bench the CIO from the C-team, executives won’t be left floundering. Cloud computing’s rise has empowered managed service providers to take on some of CIOs’ more intricate responsibilities, such as overseeing delicate legacy infrastructure. As outsourced and cloud-based services replace in-house environments, we believe many of the CIO’s daily tasks will evaporate. In time, the combined powers of a tech-inclined C-suite and network of managed service providers could endanger the CIO role for good. Given advances in application development cycles, large companies can adopt almost a startup’s approach to IT, delegating initiatives to small teams at a lesser cost.

CIOs still hold a valuable spot in most organizations, but businesses would be wise to start planning their approach toward building an IT-capable executive team. This should include a refreshed HR mindset, one that prioritizes technological literacy during executive recruitment, and a culture that discourages overreliance on the CIO. There are plenty of risks in this transition, including overly compartmentalized solutions and the building of mini-IT empires. A management team that’s as tech smart as it is business savvy, however, can successfully manage those risks.

Dean Fischer is the CEO and co-founder of management and technology consulting firm West Monroe Partners. Eric Dean is the corporate vice president of Arthur J. Gallagher & Co. and has served as CIO to a number of organizations including United Airlines. 


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