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CIOs and IT leaders must learn to pivot in order to survive

Joel Dobbs.GIFGuest post by Joel H. Dobbs
Joel H. Dobbs is the CEO and President of The Compass Talent Management Group LLC (CTMG), a consulting firm that assists organizations with the identification and development of key talent and with designing organizational strategies and structures to maximize their ability to compete in the business worlds of today and tomorrow. He is also an executive coach and serves as Executive in Residence at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Business.  Joel is also a popular and frequent contributor to the Executive CIO Forum where a version of this article was first published.
“IT in 2015 will bear little resemblance to its current state. Many activities will devolve to business units, be consolidated with other central functions such as HR and finance, or be externally sourced. Fewer than 25% of employees currently within IT will remain in that unit as the function is unbundled.” --Shvetank Shah and Matthew Charlet, Corporate Executive Board, Wall Street Journal, June 20, 2012
Recently I wrote about the future of the CIO role in a post entitled What leading CIOs think tomorrow’s CIOs will look like where I speculated that the CIO role will bifurcate into two paths.  On one path the role grows and matures into what is essentially a divisional president role with P&L responsibilities and a span of control that includes more than just IT.  The other path is a regression to the “data processing manager” role of the 1970s where operations and basic infrastructure constitute the totality of the role and the position reports further down in the organization.
Two articles in the Wall Street Journal recently suggest that these trends are coming at an ever-increasing pace.
4 career paths for the CIO
 The first article, quoted above, appeared in the June 20 on-line edition.  Written by the IT practice leader and a research assistant from the Corporate Executive Board, a firm that provides best practices research and advisory services to businesses, basically expands on my predictions by suggesting that many CIOs will assume broader responsibilities for a variety of corporate services as the actual IT department itself shrinks. Thus, as consumerization, cloud computing and the general trend towards self-service IT matures, this evolution will “weed out” the less successful among the CIO ranks with only those with strong business and leadership skills surviving.  Many CIOs will be replaced by executives who have “come of age” running lines of business other than IT.
Shah and Charlet suggest that there are at least four potential career paths for evolving CIOs.  “By 2015, the CIO role could shrink to managing technology procurement and integration. However, there are also opportunities to transition to a leadership role in a business unit, migrate to a senior role at an external vendor or outsourcer, or evolve within the corporation to become head of a multi-functional business services organization,” they write.
This last option is where the author focus most of their attention and one that may provide the most opportunity. They believe that today’s “CIO toolkit”--which includes a cross-organizational view of business processes, service management experience, staff leadership expertise and sourcing management skills-- position CIOs well for this opportunity.  I certainly agree.
Don’t fight decentralization of IT
 The second article, by Arthur Langer of Columbia University, suggests that rather than fight the decentralization of many IT functions into the business units, CIOs should embrace this change and take the lead in decentralizing their organizations.  As he points out, “Management without control results in something we call leadership! You won’t disenfranchise IT. Rather, you’ll strengthen the importance of technology—and how important you are as a business leader.”
Knowing when to pivot
In my work with startup companies I teach a technique known as The Lean Startup.  One of the key components to running a lean startup is knowing when to pivot.  A lean startup pivot is a structured course correction designed to test a new fundamental hypothesis about the product, strategy, and engine of growth. For an entrepreneur knowing when to pivot and when to persevere can be a life-or-death decision for their company.  For CIOs, deciding to pivot or not to pivot could be a life-or-death decision for your career. Do you stay the course and risk professional extinction, or do you pivot, embrace the evolution of IT as a business discipline and lead rather than fight? 
Pivots require courage.  They also require you to look at the facts as they really are, not as you would like for them to be.
Max de Pree, former CEO of Herman Miller and author of several books on leadership, wrote, “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.”  The reality is that the discipline of IT is rapidly changing and becoming more of a democracy and less of a dictatorship.  CIOs who are dictators will be overthrown.  Max also wrote, “We cannot become what we need by remaining what we are.” Now may be a good time to do a reality check.  Is a pivot in your future?
Other guest posts by Joel Dobbs:
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