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Is it time to combine the CIO and COO roles?

I’d like to start this post by posing two questions:

#1: How many processes do you perform each day that do NOT leverage technology (e.g. email, systems, websites, databases)?

#2: How many IT resources at your company (people, systems, infrastructure) do NOT support a business process?

My guess is that you may be able to think of 1–2 examples, but I would not be surprised if you could not think of any! Manual processes simply are not prevalent in most businesses today.  Most paper based processes have evolved into Excel spreadsheets or into department databases or even enterprise-wide systems.  Business operations and IT are getting more intertwined by the day.  This leads me to a third question:

#3: Why do most organizations have separate leaders in charge of business operations (COO) and IT (CIO)?

Maybe it’s due to the sheer amount of work needing to be done, or the fact that one person simply cannot handle the work load.  Or, maybe it’s due to the “Us vs. Them” mentality between “The Business” and “IT”.  However, I believe a more realistic answer is related to the skillset and desires of the leaders and the teams.  A business leader that understands IT is tough to find.  An IT leader that can drive business results is equally as hard to find.  A leader that wants to be involved in both can be nearly impossible to find. 

From personal experience, I have seen business executives cringe when they hear the word database.  It’s a concept that is deemed as “technical” and not something they want to try to understand.  Alternatively, I’ve worked with many IT folks that need very explicit direction of what to build, with little interest in or appreciation for the business’s intent.  Imagine for a minute what roadblocks could be avoided if process and technology leadership came from the same role.  This leader would most likely set cross-functional expectations with his team to ensure the staff is knowledgeable about processes as well as technology.   In short order, this could lead to:

  • Better coordination and quicker results on technology implementations
  • Less work-arounds after systems have been implemented
  • Innovation for the business’ sake, not just for technology sake
  • Process improvements that leverage the right technology

Obviously the process and IT team roles and structure would need to shift to get these results.  However, the cross-learning that would be possible by being part of the same team will, at the very least, improve communications between process and technical thought leaders.

Searching Google for examples of companies that have combined the CIO and COO roles does not yield many results.  The largest example is from 2008, when HSBC decided to combine the two roles.  It’s hard to see if HSBC has done well because of this change due to the overall economic environment since 2008, but time will tell.  Whether or not combining the CIO and COO roles becomes a larger trend - I encourage innovative companies to explore this approach and drive impactful change today.

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