When the microcomputer invasion occurred, neither the academics nor the vendors offered a way of balancing the traditional integration and asset-conservation roles of the CIO with the user's insistence on local autonomy at just about any price. The suddenness of the microcomputer onslaught does not offer a good excuse for this conceptual paralysis. The proliferation of minicomputers in the 1970s offered enough warning to anticipate massive attacks on the mainframe fortresses not later than by the mid-1980s.
Instead of dealing with this matter as a question of political "governance," the conflicts involved posturing, image projections, publicity, preferred-practice sermons, and popularized versions of academic sociology. The solutions offered were closer to psychotherapy than to the practice of pragmatic politics. Instead of negotiating and experimenting with new institutional forms for coping with the problems of everyday operations involving hundreds or thousands of computers, the academics and vendors explored how to redefine the character of information management.
They adopted the language of psychology that suggested that changing one's personality is perhaps the most desirable way of adjusting to external challenges. The problem with this approach was that there were as many opinions about suitable personality adjustments as there were consultants and academics.
The early 1980s were the turning point for changing the characteristics of information management from pragmatism to ideology. The change produced a shift from an orientation toward operating results to a focus on preferred practices for managing information systems. According to this view, you ought to follow a prescribed set of processes enumerated by the experts. If you can score well on someone's authoritative checklist, superior operating results should appear. In the absence of verifiable results, all you have to do is accumulate the right number of points for the right kinds of attributes, according to weighting factors assigned by experts.
Recently, I reviewed the results of a comprehensive effort to define excellence in information management. It was a 156 page questionnaire detailing over 200 desirable information management practices, with points and relative weights of importance assigned to each factor. Most of the points were awarded for following the "correct" process, such as having the right documents, holding the right meetings, getting the right approval signatures, following the prescribed system-development cycle. The checklist paid no attention to making a thorough assessment of existing problems, evaluating potential threats from competitors, or checking out the economic fundamentals for affordability. The checklist neglected assessing the quality of personnel to innovate, modernize, and experiment.
This reminded me of the culture of the mandarins, the Chinese emperor's administrators, who destroyed the once economically and culturally superior Chinese civilization by forcing everyone to follow the correct process without paying much attention to substance. I blame this intrusion of mandarin-like thinking on the disorientation of the ClOs.
The CIOs who are pragmatic politicians shed their vulnerable cost structures, make it easy for managers to acquire microcomputers without much headache, and offer innovative application solutions quickly and at low cost. They take a practical view of who their constituency is - the customers - and take care of them. They stay close to everyday operating problems. Most important, they care about the motivation and the well-being of the people who build and use their information systems.
The CIOs who view themselves as the mandarins in charge of the correct information management processes instead of performance choose to avoid turmoil by lifting themselves above it. In their opinion, the proper role of the CIO is to shift from the oversight of the organization's technological infrastructure to following the shortest path that leads to the seat of power. Instead of managing information, the mandarin CIO would shape business strategy for the "information age."
Somewhere along the way, the process-oriented CIOs lost sight of their primary purpose, which is the delivery of reliable and low-cost information services. Driven by ambition and prompted by preaching visionaries, they have become infatuated with new roles in which they cannot succeed unless they can simultaneously sustain technical excellence for what they are already responsible for.
This drifting away from the basics received encouragement from an increasing propensity to appoint executives with hardly any information services experience to become CIOs. Whatever the cause, this leads the CIOs away from their primary mission. The process-oriented CIO will engage in enthusiastic bidding for leadership roles to promote whatever new idea becomes fashionable, such as total quality management, groupware, electronic commerce, or multimedia.
There is nothing wrong with a talented CIO gaining responsibility for an innovative program that will make him a leader among his peers. There is nothing wrong with a CIO becoming a COO or CEO. However. a review of actual promotions does not bear out that this occurs in real life. COO and CEO jobs almost always go to those individuals who have shown a steady record of earning revenues from customers or who have earned the trust of the Board of Directors as guardians of shareholder interests. ClOs who have succumbed to the simplistic view that they should be strategists instead of tending to their shop usually decrease their job tenure expectancy to a half-life of less than 15 months. The only ones who have gained from promoting ideas that extend the CIO's ambitions beyond realistic limits are consultants, who have been earning $25,000 for lectures and $500 per hour for "strategic consulting" in reorganizing the CIO function after the next failure.
The position of CIO is not and cannot be a proximate stepping stone into the executive suite. The CIO will have to become an accepted operating executive of a major business before his peers will ever give him the political support that is essential for such advancement. The time has come for the CIOs of this world to get back to basics and clean up their noninteroperable, redundant, obsolete, overpriced, error-prone, schedule-lagging, and credibility-lacking systems. Whoever can deliver the best systems will survive to compete for a job as an operating manager who earns revenue from paying customers instead of living off the allocations of administrative overhead. The CIO who presides over a modern equivalent of a "constitutional convention," during which a viable balance between central coordination and local initiatives leads to harmony, will become the godfather of information governance.
Regardless of aspirations to a different status, information systems managers are only brokers between the consumers of information products and the information technologies delivered by vendors. As information technologies become a commodity purchased from competing vendors, the capacity to make purchasing decisions shifts to the consumers. Expensive brokers will disappear under such conditions. They are disintermediated in the same way as small local retail establishments become displaced by supermarkets and superstores, leaving room only for specialized establishments.
Within the next 20 years, you'll see over half of the information technology assets moving into the hands of commercially run service utilities. "Outsourcing" is just a name that masks a profound change in the way technology may support the majority of customers in the future. What you see is the end of the craft guild mode and the beginning of the industrialization of information processing. Corporations will be able to take their IT budget out of overhead and make it a variable cost, just as labor and materials are now a cost of production. For that they will not need a CIO, but a chief technical officer that will assure enterprise-wide systems integration, because every executive will be a chief information officer. In this way, the CIOs will have succeeded beyond their dreams, though not exactly in the form they originally visualized.