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Being Bartholomew Cubbins September 16, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
Tags: , ,

Consider an ice cream company.  They make great ice cream and have enjoyed much success over the years.  But lately, their market share is slipping, and they are feeling heat of the competition.  They decide they need a new product line, a complete new set of frozen treats that will reshape the ice cream market.  To whom do they turn for product design and development?

Their CIO, of course!  Who better to know the vagaries of ice cream eaters?

Wrong. We all know this is wrong.  They would no more ask the CIO to design ice cream than they would the CFO or their general counsel.

Why, then, do companies that develop more technical products turn to the CIO to develop and market those products?  Why would anyone think that  a CIO, with their deep knowledge of systems, infrastructure, and service delivery, is able to build and sell a product at a profit?

Many CIOs these days are suddenly wearing several hats: CIO, Product Development, Web Marketing, and the like.  Some CIOs even have a P&L and are expected to make money for the company!  Who ever got it into their head that CIOs are also savvy marketers and salesmen?

As technology pervades every aspect of our lives, computing is becoming intertwined with almost every product bought and sold.  Desperate for help with all this technology, companies are turning to the only people they have on hand that seem to understand how to make all this stuff work: the CIO.  If a widget suddenly has a computer in it, the CIO is called in to help design, build, market, and sell the widget.  In some cases, they put the CIO completely in charge of the entire widget division!

This is a big mistake.  I take great pride in being a CIO, and I work hard to be a good one.  I have lots of experiences with computers and building software systems. I have no experience with developing and marketing products, whether they have computers in them or not.  I should not wear that hat.

I can provide lots of advice to a product developer who has little computing experience.  A person who understands the market space and has a brilliant idea, but has little understanding how computers might be used in that product, would do well to consult with a good CIO to understand the benefits and risks of the technology aspects of the product. Together, we could do great things.  Separately, we’re on the verge of disaster.

When you talk about very non-technical products, like ice cream or lawn fertilizer, this seems like an easy argument to make.  When the products involve lots of technology, like online banking or web-based shopping, people have a harder time seeing the distinction.  I think the problem is compounded by the fact that lots of CIOs are itching to do other things and gladly accept these other hats, all with the best of intentions.

I think a CIO can get in a lot of trouble by wearing too many hats.  If you want to be a CIO, wear that hat.  If you want to be a product designer or marketer, wear that hat.  But, like Bartholomew Cubbins, CIOs with too many hats are going to find themselves, sooner or later, all sorts of difficulties.

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1. abbielundberg - September 16, 2009

I have to disagree on this one, Chuck. If the widget is standalone, with no potential for accessing, generating or exchanging data, sure, the CIO could just fill a consulting role. But if the tech-enabled product is also an information-based product (think Kindle, OnStar, any web or mobile-device-based service at all), then the CIO should absolutely be centrally involved, because there’s so much opportunity for spin-off information-based products. The question of who leads the effort — marketing, product development or the CIO — depends on the specific situation and the abilities and aptitudes of the individuals involved. But who better than the CIO to really understand how to gather, manage and leverage information? Sure, many CIOs will need to learn some new things about marketing and research, but with IT becoming as commoditized as it is, what CIO wouldn’t want to do that anyway?

2. kumud - September 16, 2009

For some companies and CIOs, Chuck, what you say is perfectly valid. In many other companies, your definition of the CIO would be deemed ‘classic’ rather than contemporary. The CIO is increasingly expected to be a business leader first, the IT leader second. In order to achieve this, the pure-play tech role is often allocated to a separate member of the team, sometimes called the CTO.

I too would be a sceptic if anyone were to continually add to his or her scope of responsibility without any adjustment to their team, org structure and working relationships with colleagues. That amount of weight would crush anyone.

But just at there is nothing wrong with someone moving from a generalist to a specialist role, the converse is equally applicable. Or do you also object to CFOs becoming CEOs – will they too stray outside their area of competence and also ultimately fail? Of course, adjustments will have to be made – incumbent responsibilities will be relinquished, reallocated, delegated – to create the space to work on new opportunities.

To suggest that CIOs are one-trick ponies that should all perform to a role template – what a dull world that would be! That CIOs should not fulfil their potential and become the best business leaders that they can be – that is not only a disappointing message to hear from a leader, but also an affront to the many CIOs that are very capably applying their talents in other areas.

Some will agree with your position, some will take issue with what you say. I for one, do not agree that one size fits all. Agent provocateur, Chuck?

3. Susan Mazza - September 16, 2009

I think it all comes down to the capabilities and desires of the individual and how well that matches the opportunity. While we need to be mindful of thinking we have skills we don’t have when expanding the scope of what we are accountable for, a strong leader will find someone to fill the gaps. The current limitations of our own knowledge and/or experience should never be a reason to stay in our “box”. And sometimes it can even be the source of new thinking that leads to competitive advantage.

On the other hand I completely get your point that just because something involves technology doesn’t mean the technology professionals that are asked to be involved understand anything about domains outside of their expertise and experience. And I do think there is a tendency to make assumptions in that regard that can get you into trouble.

4. John Charnovich - September 16, 2009

I rarely read blogs let alone comment but this struck a cord with me Chuck. I would have to heavily agree with your readers comments as a CIO/ IT Executive in Industry (CPG/Electronics vs Rocks!) and have also led 5 successful software companies from designing/building products to implementing, marketing and selling. If you have the right skills and/or experience to take on these expanded initiatives, I say “Why not the CIO”, especially for technology based products. IT Executives can only improve their view of the end customer as a result which will help drive better alignment and credibility with the business. At the end of the day, we are all consumers and I have seen my share of egotistical marketers absolutely kill new products and market launches…ouch!

5. Chuck Musciano - September 17, 2009

Thanks so much for these deep, insightful comments. The best part of blogging is what you learn from your readers!

I started to reply here, but realized that a full reply would be too long. Instead, I’ll post a broader response next Monday. Check back then; I hope you’ll want to respond in kind.

6. John Charnovich - September 17, 2009
7. Chris Siefken - September 17, 2009

Chuck, I’m glad to see you’ve started the debate on this topic I certainly never gave it much thought until our conversation the other day. What role do I play and how are my responsibilities at odds with themselves on a day in and day out basis. More to come as I ponder our discussion and observe my actions.


8. Bartholomew Cubbins, Redux « The Effective CIO - September 21, 2009

[…] use a full post to reply rather than add to the comment stream.  You may want to read the comments that prompted this post before reading further.  It’s OK; I’ll […]

9. CIOs Don’t Need Two Heads to Wear Two Hats « Lundberg Media - October 5, 2009

[…] the other but not both at the same time. They argue that when it comes to tech-enabled innovation, CIOs should offer advice but leave the heavy lifting to product designers and marketers. I disagree. What do you […]

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