CIOs see a future in the chief exec's job

David Taylor

Inside track

John Whitworth, chief information officer (CIO) of Cox Insurance, explains the difference between chief...

David Taylor

Inside track

John Whitworth, chief information officer (CIO) of Cox Insurance, explains the difference between chief information and technical officers and IT directors and which role has the potential for taking on the job of chief executive officer.

DT: John, you are a high-profile CIO. What differences do you see between that and being an IT director?

JW: The key difference can be summed up by the CIO's ability to manage ambiguity, not be consumed by it. This is possible as the CIO is a key component of the main business and not running an important but peripheral support function.

They are, therefore, empowered to be at the forefront of, and often the catalyst for, change in the organisation. They have the best overview of how to pull the change levers of people, business process and IT.

DT: How does this work with, say, IT strategy in these times of lightning change?

JW: The IT strategy must not just be aligned to the business strategy but actually be embedded within it. Therefore, key company deliverables and their associated business measures become entrusted to the CIO to realise, and these, in turn, then effectively have a powerful champion for success, something that has been missing previously.

DT: A very direct answer, but where does that leave technology? New dotcoms are turning to chief technical officers (CTOs), young whizz kids who are making technology seem sexy again. Where do you see the so-called dotcorps going in this area?

JW: I see the CTO with a much more single-minded technical focus, as is often needed in dotcoms. However, traditional companies have known this for some time, and although they may not have called them CTOs, they will have this area well covered.

DT: I'm not sure I understand the relationship between the two, as you are suggesting.

JW: The roles of CIO/CTO are not mutually exclusive. They should have a CTO role reporting to a CIO. This is the best of both worlds: senior, high-value technical competence and ability, combined in an environment where this is totally channelled into business success and not technology for technology's sake. The lesson is now well understood by recent dotcom failures. CTOs need to report to business IT competence, not traditional CEO and finance directors.

DT: As you know John, I believe strongly that future CEOs will come from IT's ranks. Any thoughts?

JW: The CIO is an ambassador, negotiating with internal and external entities to achieve business success through constant management of change; measured by return on capital employed, not traditional IT director project measures of the past, such as on time and on budget. This is, therefore, an apprenticeship for the CEO role of tomorrow. I agree - in the next two years we will see many CEO appointments from CIOs. The new breed of CEO must also combine traditional sound management skills with an openness and flexibility to drive the business forward by applying the new distribution and knowledge models currently employed in the best e-commerce companies.

The CIO is one of the few senior executives who constantly has the necessary depth of exposure to this fast changing environment. This makes the progression to CEO both natural and seamless.

David Taylor's Inside Track. A provocative insight into the world of IT in business, is out now. The book is the latest in the Computer Weekly Professional Series, published by ButterworthHeinemann: 01865-888180

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