Recently, I was having dinner with some professional colleagues and I overheard the following conversation:

Guest 1: "I heard that Mr. X has just left as CIO of a large corporation..."

Guest 2: "Yeah, that's true. It's the third CIO the corporation has had in three years."

We subsequently turned our conversation to discuss the plight of chief information officers (CIOs). One of my colleagues stated that the average tenure of CIOs is 18 months.

I don't have any particular data to confirm that CIOs last approximately 18 months. However, that figure is easy to believe. In fact, some people claim that CIO stands for "career is over."

Superficially, it is easy to point at causes for the high turnover in the CIO position. Sarbanes-Oxley has placed a burden on the CIO (even though an organization that has been well run from an information standpoint should have little or no problem with Sarbanes-Oxley). HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) is another burden in some communities. The Patriot Act has an influence elsewhere. And so it seems that there is now an external mandated discipline for information that we have never had before. Thus, from a superficial perspective, it appears that there is pressure being placed on the CIO.

Yet when you scratch the surface, you find that there are several underlying reasons why the CIO crop is such a miserable failure. Let me outline the reasons with some anecdotes.

A while back, I was invited to speak to a group of CIOs. There were two speaking slots ­ mine was on the economics of managing the information technology (IT) infrastructure and how to save millions of dollars; the other speaking slot was on writing messages to PDAs (personal digital assistants). Exactly two people showed up for my presentation. The other fifty or so people were much more interested in the new technology ­– PDAs.

Another story relates to a publication for CIOs. I asked the editor if she would be interested in a story on architecture ­– where is technology going, why is it going there and what are the implications? The editor of the magazine told me that CIOs were much more interested in dot-coms. Articles about architecture and the direction of the industry were just not of interest to CIOs. She was right. CIOs have never wanted to get their hands dirty with the facts. In years past, CIOs have avoided issue after issue, including:

  • Legacy systems
  • Integration of systems and data
  • Understanding and servicing the needs of the end user
  • Archiving data
  • Architecture

Instead, CIOs have been much more interested in the buzz of the day, including:

  • Dot-coms
  • E-business
  • Artificial intelligence
  • CASE (computer aided software engineering) technology
  • PDAs

Let's face it. It is much more fun to look at new technology than to understand and deal with the visceral issues of today's information problems.
These stories are only a few illustrations of many, many cases of the CIO opting out of the dirty and complex realities of making information technology work in the organization.

Why are CIOs acting this way? Don't they know that they are cutting their own throats when they avoid the issues of success?

Perhaps their actions are related to the maturity of the IT industry. Compare the maturity of the IT industry with that of other industries. The roads and walls built by engineers of Rome are 2,000 to 3,000 years old. Archaeologists tell us that markings on bones suggest medicine (in a crude form) may have been practiced by man for 10,000 years. In contrast, our profession has been around for a mere 50 years.

One manifestation of the disparity in the maturity of the professions is that in older professions, there is a time-honored path for rising to the top of the profession. Accountants have their exams. Doctors have their schooling and their internship and bar exams. Engineers have their set of tests and certifications. What about IT? In the early 1950s, IT sprang up from nowhere. One minute there was no computer, and the next minute there was a computer department. Whoever happened to be in place at the time was elected manager. This included accountants, engineers and mathematicians among others. In short, there was no process of any kind to qualify these people who just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Some of these people were actually qualified and up to the task, but others were not.

In the 1960s, some of these managers realized that they had no special qualifications for being named managers. They had passed no tests nor had they any signal accomplishment, but here they were ­– corporate IT managers. This realization led to a deep-seated paranoia. This paranoia was evident in the unnatural dependency of the managers on the vendor. There were no schools, no gurus; there was no history in the profession. For these reasons, the early crop of managers relied on the vendors to tell them how to do their jobs. In the early days of our profession, vendors had enormous influence on the running of the IT department. Vendors determined how the organization was structured, who was to be promoted, how budget was spent and so forth. In doing so, vendors locked in their positions with the managers that relied heavily on their advice. Making a hardware or software sale was a piece of cake when the vendor was essentially running the organization anyway.

Another manifestation of the paranoia was the perceived need for standards and methodologies. It is a really curious fact that many companies paid large sums of money for standards manuals and methodologies that –­ once acquired –­ stood in a cabinet and gathered dust. The really bizarre aspect of this was that management was actually happy to have the books gathering dust. Perhaps management was comforted to know that they were there; these books suggested that there was discipline and structure within the organization. The fact that these books served no real purpose was irrelevant.

Fast forward to today. Who are today's CIOs? Most of today's CIOs are the class of managers of 1960 –­ the very same people who were promoted because they happened to be in the right place at the right time. Given that background, it is no wonder that CIOs aren't interested in the underlying issues of making the IT organization work. They have never faced the issues their entire career ­– so why start now? With that in mind, it is easy to see why CIOs don't last long.

Register or login for access to this item and much more

All Information Management content is archived after seven days.

Community members receive:
  • All recent and archived articles
  • Conference offers and updates
  • A full menu of enewsletter options
  • Web seminars, white papers, ebooks

Don't have an account? Register for Free Unlimited Access