Not long ago, sometime between the widespread deployment of office computers and the proliferation of cloud computing, there was a period that was difficult for many businesses. They were at the mercy of the ebb and flow of technical ideas and trends.

The rise of the CIO

But for one type of worker, things were glorious: the true-born technologist. A childhood tinkerer became a teenage hacker, who became an engineer or corporate operations specialist. Sooner or later, this person really ran the office; no new machine or piece of software was bought or deployed without her consent. The word “guru” was often used. And if that person could show that she actually understood the needs of the business as well as she understood technology, then she could rise to become an all-powerful sorcerer.

But in order to fit such people more neatly into the management hierarchy, they were usually called Chief Information Officers or Chief Technology Officers. And a CIO would truly come into her own when she presided over the development and implementation of a custom-built, in-house system to meet the unique needs of the particular business that she knew so well.

CIOs start to question their role

But then things got cloudy. Vendors started showing up, pitching scalable software as a service (SaaS) solutions such as SalesForce. All that’s needed for employees to use it is a browser and an internet connection. So gradually (and then suddenly), the CIO found herself asking these questions:

  1. Wow, this service is amazing! Should we invest in a license?
  2. But wait, if we do that…what is my job actually about?

One recalls the period in the early 20th century during which middle class housewives found their domestic domains transformed by vacuum cleaners and electric washing machines. Were they now empowered “home managers,” or had they become cogs in a vast machine? Or, as William Burroughs might have said, will formerly all-powerful tech gurus be reduced to calling in experts to tell them which buttons to push?

From CIO to BEO

Some industry insiders suggest that it’s time for the CIO to transform into a BEO, or Business Enablement Officer. The BEO does not (usually) oversee engineers and coders, who work for the vendor. Instead, she is the gatekeeper and manager of the vendor’s relationship with the company, deciding (for example) when it makes sense to use a hybrid cloud solution, or whether to push the vendor for customization.

A good BEO knows which way the wind is blowing, and has the sense to lead in that direction before she gets left behind. As Vivek Kundra, Obama’s first White House CEO has said, a CIO who says “no” too often is asking to be circumvented. After all, the adaptation of SaaS solutions at the office is often driven by end users. And if all it takes to get the vendor on board is a contract and a credit card number, you may one day find that the partnership you vetoed is already in play, only without your guidance. It might be a simple customer relationship management or data analysis platform, or it might be a shadow IT situation in which a junior operations manager has taken it upon himself to open an Amazon Web Services account.

Your company still needs tech leadership

All the more reason why, in a cloud-dominated world, organizations still need technical leadership. But instead of relating to colleagues like a wizard in a tower, the technical executive of the future is more likely to be the navigator of a ship: pointing out obstacles, identifying opportunities, and charting the way for other sailors.

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Digital Industrialization

Michael Bennett Cohn

Michael Bennett Cohn was head of digital product and revenue operations at Condé Nast, where he created the company's first dynamic system for digital audience cross-pollination. At a traditional boutique ad agency, he founded and ran the digital media buying team, during which time he planned and executed the digital ad campaign that launched the first Amazon Kindle. At Federated Media, where he was the first head of east coast operations, he developed and managed conversational marketing campaigns for top clients including Dell, American Express, and Kraft. He also has a master's degree in cinema-television from the University of Southern California. He lives in Brooklyn.

Michael Bennett Cohn