In the days before computers, boards of directors concerned themselves with keeping stockholders happy, increasing profits and planning future growth. When IT became—in the minds of many board members—a necessary evil, most of the C-suite had little understanding of what IT did. To secure funding for projects, IT managers were often subjected to an intense inquiry during which a quantifiable return on investment was demanded. Hapless IT managers had to prove to that every expenditure would pay financial dividends and was absolutely necessary.
Today's boards have not changed dramatically, but technology has brought additional complexity to the C-suite. Board members are beginning to understand that not all of the rewards gained from a modern IT department are immediately quantifiable. It is difficult, if not impossible, to assign a dollar value to things like customer satisfaction, employee morale or public perception, yet all of these have an indirect impact on company profitability.
Modern businesses face increased competition, a global marketplace and customers who are both more demanding and less loyal. Customers expect to be able to have access across multiple channels of engagement and to have this access be seamless and consistent across every channel. A well-run IT department that embraces the latest technology is essential to provide this multi-channel engagement.
In addition, several well-publicized data breaches have recently had devastating impacts on some major corporations. No board wants to see stock prices plummet after it is announced that millions of customers have had their personal information or credit card numbers stolen by hackers. Boards have become aware that IT is important to their corporation in ways that they could not have imagined just a few years ago.
Despite the progress made in helping boards realize the importance of IT, however, few C-level managers have a solid grasp of exactly what IT does, much less how they do it or why. This is quite understandable when you consider the special skills that earned them their position on the board. CMOs typically excel in marketing, but few could discuss the pros and cons of Android versus iOS. COOs are normally efficiency experts who are skilled at finding ways to maximize productivity, but many have no clue as to the benefits that wearable technology might provide. CFOs are often a bit more tech-savvy, but even they may suffer from tunnel vision, concerned more with ensuring that GAAP and SEC guidelines are met than with enabling sales reps.
Corporations have recently begun to realize that their tech skills are lacking, and since technology has become such a vital part of modern business, many are moving to remedy the situation. They are recruiting CIOs at an amazing rate to help them gain or retain a competitive edge. Although the role of the CIO is not as well-defined that C-level titles with a longer history, the consensus is that CIOs are a welcome addition to boards.
Different companies have different expectations from their CIOs. However, one of the most critical roles that CIOs play is to serve as an "interpreter." CIOs can explain technology to fellow C-suite managers in terms that they can easily understand and relate to their particular area of expertise. Perhaps even more importantly, CIOs can communicate with IT managers on even levels requiring a great deal of technical terminology or skills. Virtually all CIOs have served "in the trenches," so they have a solid grasp of how IT should serve the needs of the enterprise. They also know when IT managers are "blowing smoke" and when they are presenting a valid argument. However, as members of the C-suite, CIOs are far more than just tech experts — they are executives making business decisions that affect the overall success of the enterprise.