Too many C-chiefs, not enough workers?

Chairs in a conference roomOver the past few years, the IT function has seen the rise of a number of new C-suite titles, from chief digital officers to chief information security officers. But are these roles really a vital addition to the boardroom? Or are they purely C-titled for visibility, rather than authority?

If the boardroom really has to be large enough to host all the executives with a C-suite title, manufacturers of boardroom tables will have been cashing in of late.

Readers of the business press will be forgiven for thinking that the executive suite has recently welcomed a host of new roles:

  • The chief data officer and chief digital officer (both CDOs, so don’t confuse them)
  • The chief analytics officer
  • The chief security officer, chief privacy officer, chief information security officer and chief data privacy officer
  • Of course, also, the chief innovation officer, chief knowledge officer, chief search officer and chief technology officer
  • Oh, and the chief information officer

Let’s hope that the chairman has a microphone or a very loud voice. And, that there’s someone in the building actually doing some work under all these chiefs.

The serious question is whether this proliferation of titles, reported in the media, is actually real? If so, how do these roles differentiate themselves from each other? And does their emergence collectively render the CIO role obsolete?

Or are these actually all positions that simply report to the CIO? Are they given a notional C-suite title to increase their visibility, without really having the same authority?

There are no simple black-and-white answers here. In part, it depends on the business or industry in question. For a company that lives or dies by protecting sensitive information, it may well make sense to appoint a chief information security officer (and, presumably, a chief data officer too?). Or is that the chief information officer?

One of the causes of this trend is the rapid emergence and maturing of a new set of digital technologies, which are increasingly disrupting the way that companies are run: smart mobile devices, big data and analytics, social media and cloud computing.

As businesses scramble to work out what these technologies really mean for them, they are bound to experiment with a range of new leadership roles. (The same thing happened with CIOs in the 1990s — as this role emerged, it consolidated prior titles: the simple IT manager, the electronic data processing manager, and the simpler data processing manager, and so on.)

Over time, I expect that a number of these new roles will either quietly disappear or will be merged into each other. But that’s just my view; others will surely differ.

So, over the coming weeks and months, I’ll be asking some colleagues and IT leaders to give us their perspective on which titles truly matter and on what makes those titles different. We’ll start next week with the chief digital officer.

In the meantime, I’ve got to take an urgent call with our chief holiday officer.

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