Of all the terms in the lexicon of business titles that I would personally like to expunge, chief information officer comes immediately to mind. It and its abbreviation CIO suggest to me a distortion in the understanding of how to make the most effective and efficient use of the information resources in an organisation.
But it is not the title alone that bothers me. The whole concept underpinning the existence of a function such as a chief information officer or, for that matter, an information technology director, does not strike the right note.
These terms suggest a separate information systems domain, which stands beside the main functions of the business. This separateness between the business and the IT function is one of the key reasons why information systems are so often not the success they should have been.
It has only been very recently that research in the US and Europe has pointed the way to sound practice in IS management. It was previously quite difficult to classify information technology or IS in terms of its role or its contribution in business.
At one level it is possible to say that IS needs to be understood as a factor of production in exactly the same sense as the other classical factors of production such as land, labour, capital and entrepreneurship. All of these are ubiquitous in any business process and the more their uses are aligned to the organisation's central objectives, strategy and values, the more effectively they will be employed and the greater the benefits they will help to deliver.
On the other hand it is possible to see a distinct difference between IS as a new factor of production and the other classic factors. This lies in how IS can be used to lever important business resources and processes and thereby materially affect, out of proportion to the time and effort involved, the overall performance of the organisation.
The levering potential of IS is substantial and it is clear that many organisations need this leverage in order to remain competitive as they proceed into the 21st century.
These organisations have understood that IS leverage is not a "nice to have" addition to their processes but is central to their business success. In fact, in the best organisations, the business processes and the IS supporting them are often indistinguishable and inseparable. This seamlessness only occurs where there is the highest degree of collaboration between line managers and IS professionals.
There are a number of ways of encouraging an organisation to use IS in the creative ways suggested by this concept of business leverage. However, in all successful cases these types of initiatives have been sponsored, championed and, in effect, managed by line executives.
The attitude and consequent behaviour of these line managers is the single most important element in IS success or failure. The role of the IS department is always, in successful organisations, that of a facilitator of business processes and change. It is very important indeed that the IS department should not be involved as either a sponsor or champion.
Its role is to bring IS opportunities to the attention of line managers who will act on those opportunities with the greatest potential to enhance corporate performance. In fact, when the IS department attempts to play the role of IS sponsor or champion, this tactic often signals that there is a particularly high risk of project failure.
Like the Queen's consort, the proper place for the information systems department is one step behind the line manager. Establishing the post of CIO or, worse still, IT director, tends to create an environment in which the incumbent (and perhaps his or her senior colleagues) will expect to be able to lead the organisation rather than support the line managers' business needs and requirements.
The elevation of the senior IS person to the boardroom gives several wrong signals. It may encourage the culture gap that creates the "them and us" attitude between line managers and IS professionals which is so often a problem in organisations. It strengthens the stove-pipe attitude and dilutes the effect of any move the organisation may be attempting towards integrated processes or a holistic approach to business.
For many organisations, the appointment of a CIO or an IS director is probably not a smart move, a fact that has been appreciated by a number of organisations that do not have such a director. This type of appointment is the wrong way round.
It is much more effective to have IS report to the line managers. The line manager to which the IS department should report should be a function of the role that IS is playing in the organisation. Where IS is used only as a record-keeping device it should report to the second assistant deputy bookkeeper. If, on the other hand, IS is used to achieve a competitive advantage, perhaps it should report to a main board director if not to the managing director.
There is also the question of the IS empire. CIOs and IS directors tend to need empires. After all, why be a CIO or an IS director if there is not a substantial IS department to manage or direct?
Unfortunately, a corporate empire is "old think". In the 21st century the "new think" is that IS departments need to be shrunk (remember Honey, I Shrunk the Kids?) to the point where they are as efficient and as effective as possible.
Anyway that is another story and the subject, perhaps, of another article: "Hi boss, I shrunk the IS department!"
Dan Remenyi worked for more than 25 years as a computer consultant and has written several books. He edited Make or Break Issues in IT Management, published for Computer Weekly by Butterworth Heineman ISBN 0-7506-5034-6
This was first published in March 2002