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Why Does the CIO Label Keep Expanding?

CIOs' ever-changing roles.

by / October 13, 2008
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If you are reading this, chances are you're an IRE. It's a little old-school, but IRE was once the second syllable in NASCIO's name back when the organization was known as the National Association of State Information Resource Executives (NASIRE).

It may seem counterintuitive, but the redeeming quality of the label "information resource executive" is that it made an uninspiring job title. The term's initials were never popular as a three-letter acronym. But it's descriptive and might be just generic enough to help categorize where this career path is going.

To review, the IRE era ended thanks in no small part to the debate and drama over the role, identity and professional status of the CIO. But the adoption of the CIO title was not the last three-letter acronym (TLA) on the subject - not by a long shot.

Witness the rise of what might be called the suite of "mini-Cs": chief technology officer (CTO), chief information security officer (CISO) and chief architectural officer (CAO), among others. As I documented in the April 2008 issue of Public CIO, Virginia recently appointed what appears to be a first-in-the-nation chief application officer to bring the same level of executive focus to enterprise applications (including but not limited to ERP, ECM, CRM and BI -- enterprise resource planning, enterprise content management, customer relationship management and business intelligence, respectively) as the CTO brings to enterprise infrastructure. To be clear, many CIOs shoulder components of these roles by themselves, but the proliferation of "mini-Cs" acknowledges the growing role of trusted deputies and assistants. Moving forward, though, those deputies may not do what they are doing today.

Case in point: Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama promises to radically redefine the role of CTOs with a decidedly Web 2.0 twist, The Atlantic reported this summer. An Obama administration apparently would introduce online fireside chats, provide a searchable database of how every federal dollar is spent and post all nonemergency legislation for public comment. The CTO would be on point to make it so.

Judging by the geeky corner of the blogosphere and trade press, the 2.0 makeover of information resource management will include the introduction of more new chiefs - e.g., chief customer service officer, chief process officer and a chief delivery officer - to bring executive-level attention and expertise to solving intractable business problems. To those same ends, senior technical roles will likely be recast as solution, service or product architects. (And let's not forget legal and contracting specialists for managing the complex web of cross-sector relationships around IT development, maintenance and service provision.)

This new conventional wisdom attempts to reconcile the twin truths that the democratization of technologies makes them easier to use at the front end while making the engineering at the back end that much harder and more complex.

The new titles and micro-labeling of roles may be little more than a more detailed version of that tried-and-sometimes-true tendency to reorganize during times of flux, especially when leaders are uncertain about what to do but know they must do something.

That brings us back to IRE as a category - but not necessarily a title. The new generation of chiefs, analysts and architects can fairly be seen - as they see themselves - as information resource executives. Importantly the IRE category also applies to business managers, public executives and others who make or influence investment decisions. Such self-identification is the chicken soup of modernization - it couldn't hurt.

The lesson is this: While not everyone in government can be a CIO, they all should see themselves as an IRE, if only a part-timer. That said, there is little danger of NASCIO going retro. Nor is this magazine likely to relaunch as Public IRE. That would sound like a journal of wrath, which is exactly the taxpayer response we are all working to avoid.


This column appears as Raising IRE: Because no acronym is forever in the August/September print edition of Public CIO.

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Paul W. Taylor Contributing Writer

Paul W. Taylor, Ph.D., is the editor-at-large of Governing magazine. He also serves as the chief content officer of e.Republic, Governing’s parent organization, as well as senior advisor to the Governing Institute. Prior to joining e.Republic, Taylor served as deputy Washington state CIO and chief of staff of the state Information Services Board (ISB). Dr. Taylor came to public service following decades of work in media, Internet start-ups and academia. He is also among a number of affiliated experts with the non-profit, non-partisan Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) in Washington, D.C.

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