Veteran CIO Bob DeRodes has seen interest in bifurcating the CIO before, and it's a horror show every time.

It appears we are experiencing a revival of a tried and failed axiom that the IT needs of a large enterprise are best served by the adoption of a joint technology leader configuration, bifurcating the role of the enterprise CIO.

This concept is best described as having one bright, energetic technology leader charged with inventing new “digital” capabilities for the enterprise, while the other IT leader (a.k.a. the CIO) oversees the legacy or “traditional” systems, and possibly the IT infrastructure and IT operations.

The insipid premise is that the digital technology leader will singularly lead the enterprise’s venture into uncharted IT waters like those of the Internet, mobility, and the cloud. This voyage requires new expertise, increased speed, and above all else, cunning and wiliness - traits rarely, if ever, found in a traditional IT organization.

This is why it only stands to reason (in certain unnamed areas of corporate headquarters) that “digital” requires new and different IT leadership. After all, we all know the electrons fly much faster in “digital” systems than they do in anything looking like a traditional system, and we hope this transformation (they love that word) will allow our electrons to fly as fast as the competitors’.

After 46 years in the IT profession, I have seen this movie before, and it always seems to be portrayed as an action-adventure film. “Finally, we are going to experience true IT speed and witness new and exciting IT things happening!” Unfortunately, it hasn’t quite worked out this way, and the movie quickly turns from action-adventure into a horror picture - complete with creepy actors, disappearing bodies, crying, wailing and gnashing of teeth, and finally an all too unceremonious public beheading of the CIO.

The Original Movie: Distributed Departmental Computing

This movie was first produced in the mid-1980s with the advent of distributed departmental computing, where individual departments were allowed to buy distributed systems (servers) and create their own ‘islands of automation’ outside the control of the CIO. It made total sense because it unleashed heretofore-unseen speed and flexibility in IT delivery – organizations were finally freed from the tyrannical rule of the CIO!

Of course, there was no happy ending, as there emerged a villain named Y2K. Even though this was a farcical CIO-made-up event, it required someone to stand-up and declare to the world, “I know our enterprise’s IT will be ready for the new millennium!”

Since absolute deadlines were not well understood elsewhere in the enterprise, beleaguered CIOs seized the opportunity, stepped forward, and volunteered to accept the preparedness risk. Immediately, they exposed all the spurious departmental CIOs who had been moving so fast that they either thought the new millennia had already passed, or didn’t understand that their ‘scrappy systems’ even used calendars.

Once exposed for allowing the new crime of unprofessional computing, executive management did an almost immediate about face and placed the CIO back in control of all of IT. In exchange the CIOs agreed to cleanup that which was created under the watchful eye of no one. IT historians would later say that the victims of this lawlessness were Data, who were quietly replicating like Gremlins in a swimming pool, and Total IT Costs who had been hidden out of sight but climbing faster than King Kong.

“Two IT leaders means two distinctive sets of IT strategies, two sets of IT architectures, and one assurance of high cost and low interoperability”


Part 2: The Curse of the Desktop Computers

The sequel movie, named Desktop Computing, really happened underneath the CIO’s nose. As desktop computers grew as powerful as the initial servers that led the departmental computing revolution, anyone could build mission-critical departmental systems on their own PC. These actors were not seasoned veterans; they were mostly stand-ins consisting of walk-ons and trainees, and remarkably all this bad acting was going on in plain sight.  

The villain of the sequel, which again turned it into an indie horror flick, was Back Office Outsourcing. Decisions to move the more remedial functions to lower cost offshore operations required one thing many companies overlooked. The lower cost workers needed all the same technology as the high priced labor. Since the CIO was unaware of the hundreds of desktop systems that had been built in various departments, and the stand-ins didn’t know how to move them offshore, the script once again turned ugly.

Once again, the victims were Data and Total IT Costs, but this time Lack of Controls and Significant Risks were featured as well. This was a movie we all wanted to forget, and yet there is a cult following still alive in corporate America today, still acting it out under the watchful eye of Audit.

Part 3: Invasion of the Internet

The third movie in this series has already been running for approximately ten years to a somewhat less-than-enthusiastic audience. When the Internet emerged as a powerful tool for business around the turn of the century, many – if not most - major companies initially determined it would be better for the enterprise to give the responsibility for this new IT frontier to someone other than the incumbent CIO.

chief digital officer

Over time, and reflecting on how well that was working (not!), many astute executives slowly moved the technology of the Internet back under the control of the CIO. Those enterprises who left it split, today remain haunted by the cries from homeless, deformed or cloned data; aberrant processes that rise every night as the sun sets, and the few shadowy glimpses of their total cost of IT.

Yet, regardless of our past, with the increased emphasis on cloud computing, open source systems, and the best killer mobile app; I hear renewed discussions about the virtues of splitting the CIO’s role again. The reality of this series of unfortunate mistakes is not just the massive physical replication of disparate data and processors, but the preamble to massive security risks. It has left corporations with innumerable attack surfaces and vulnerabilities that have been exploited in the most serious cyber crimes. And, if cyber crime alone were not a large enough threat, it appears management will have to wait for the ultimate disaster movie to realize that a bifurcated CIO is really playing little more than a supporting role in their overall IT ecosystem – and is incapable of bring their IT ecosystem back from the dead… the ecosystem that has kept the enterprise alive and growing for years.

Avoid a Dual IT Universe

My advice to those who are engaged in this debate redux is to learn from what has happened; experiences have a funny way of enlightening. Enterprises do their best to create value for their customers and their owners when they have seamless, efficient systems and rapid access to rich and accurate data. That always has been, and remains, a near-impossibility when you have two or more leaders of your IT ecosystem.

Two IT leaders means there are two distinctive sets of IT strategies, two sets of IT architectures, and one assurance of high cost and low interoperability. It seems almost incomprehensible, in an era of omnichannel commerce, the Internet of Things, and advanced cyber security defenses that any knowledgeable entity would actually believe that bifurcation of the CIO role would help advance those capabilities.

Enterprises often express they have not other choice. “Our CIO doesn’t understand or embrace these new, faster, more dynamic worlds.” My advice is: Then, get a new CIO. “But, we are worried that the CIO is holding the traditional IT world together and we don’t know the impact of diluting the CIO’s focus.” Really? Then, maybe the CIO needs a new boss who can better help with setting priorities and funding resources.

There are a number of great CIOs creating value, establishing credibility and wielding influence in major corporations today. If you’re an enterprise lucky enough to have one of those professional CIOs, don’t marginalize their overall effectiveness by forcing them to operate in a dualistic IT universe that creates multiple views of your customers, products, suppliers, and financial data. It is like tying their hands behind someone else’s back. The true cost, speed, and risk implications of a bifurcated CIO role are immeasurable; and should never be misrepresented in a movie produced by those who have never really played the part.

What is CIO

Roles We Recruit


Read our weekly e-newsletter packed with career advice and resources for the strategic technology leader, and information about active searches.

The Heller Report

Add a Comment