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 / Spring 2008 / Issue 50(originally published by Booz & Company)


The Practical Visionary

Given the degree to which IT has infiltrated every aspect of large enterprises, strategic CIOs must be able to speak a wide variety of corporate languages — operations, finance, manufacturing, marketing, sales — and to work with top executives, including the CEO, COO, and CFO; the heads of procurement and HR; and the leaders of individual business units. That demands an unusually broad set of business and communi­cation skills, a combination not often associated with “techies.”

In all of these working relationships, strategic CIOs must play the role of technology visionary. This involves working regularly with other executives to develop answers to a series of significant questions: What is the role of information technology in the organization, given its strategic goals? What new technologies should the company be watching, and why? Which computer systems might profitably link to suppliers and customers, and how might the boundaries be crossed effectively? What might the company be able to do differently than it has done in the past? What might it be able to do for the first time? Answering these questions is primarily a leadership duty — the strategic CIO is in effect the “chief technology proselytizer” — but the organization will be successful only if those questions are asked and answered within the context of short-term and long-term success. The history of IT is riddled with stories of visionary IT executives who couldn’t keep the corporate networks running efficiently or get the help-desk phones answered. The true visionary CIO must work within an effective IT governance process that allows for experimentation in a controlled, business-oriented environment. There is no place in the strategic CIO’s thinking for “technology for technology’s sake.”

Based on the experience of the NBA’s Michael Gliedman and others who have done well in the role, we have observed that certain guidelines enable CIOs to succeed as strategic leaders:

Start fast. Gliedman entered a situation in which he saw the IT department employees as “order takers,” and none too effective ones at that. His first move was thus to demonstrate that IT could operate efficiently, that it could give people throughout the organization the tools and help they needed without being asked.

Manage successful projects. CIOs should work with executives throughout the business to decide quickly and dispassionately which projects to launch or con­tinue and which to kill, as well as identify the best approach to ensure each project’s success. Decisiveness and effectiveness in project management earns the respect of peers and demonstrates the CIO’s ability to think in ways the business can understand.

Don’t ask for permission. Strategic CIOs can move forward freely, without having to seek sign-off on every initiative. But no one will give it to them unless they earn it — by challenging top executives on their thinking about technology and developing a high-profile project or two that works. Then ask for forgiveness.

Fix the governance process. Effective IT governance is critical to developing a smooth-running IT operation. If the lines of authority and responsibility regarding spending, project approval, and strategic initiatives aren’t clear, no CIO can be strategic or successful. The CIO will have no clear sense of where he or she stands, and no confidence regarding how to move ahead on projects critical to the success of the enterprise.

Look ahead. The strategic CIO is also, by definition, the CIO of the future. As such, CIOs should study all the new technologies coming down the pipeline, whether or not they appear to be suited to the CIO’s company or industry. CIOs need to take the time to think about their potential strategic value, not today, but five or 10 years from now. And they should talk with their peers within the company about how such technologies might fit in with strategies they too are seeing down the road. If CIOs aren’t keeping these emerging technologies on their radar, it is at their peril: They can bet there’s a competitor out there who is.

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  1. Allan E. Alter, “The Role of the CIO: Setting a Strategic Course,” CIO Insight, April 2007: Last year’s very informative update of a long-running survey of top IT executives on CIOs and their position within their companies.
  2. Marianne Broadbent, The New CIO Leader: Setting the Agenda and Delivering Results (Harvard Business School Press, 2004): This tough-minded survey of how top IT executives succeed offers advice rooted in the realpolitik of the world of the corporate CIO.
  3. Nicholas G. Carr, Does IT Matter? Information Technology and the Corrosion of Competitive Advantage (Harvard Business School Press, 2004): The book-length version of Carr’s seminal, and controversial, article on IT and corporate strategy. A must-read for those interested in either subject.
  4. Rich Kauffeld, Johan Sauer, and Sara Bergson, “Partners at the Point of Sale,” s+b, Autumn 2007: Description of how shelf-centered collaboration among manufacturers and retailers provides a major new opportunity for the strategic CIO.
  5. National Basketball Association Web site: Even if you aren’t a basketball fan, it’s worth taking a look at the state of the art in Web site technology.
  6. For more articles on IT and technology, sign up for s+b’s RSS feed.
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