Why a CIO Isn’t

Published in TDAN.com January 2003

Why A CIO Isn’t

Chief Information Officer, Chief Technology Officer: What’s the difference? Sometimes one reports to the
other. How accurate is the title, Chief Information Officer? Do they champion and defend the delivery of information? Really?

Be careful. There are very specific metrics to validate effective information delivery. Recognizing them requires a little background. Background I’m happy to share from two decades of
observations. I’m just a bit perplexed that no one else seems to recognize that leveraging these distinctions hold market-leveragable differentiation for any company (read: increased profit

A Basket of Premises

… think posies. Collecting flowers just seems so much more fun. I recently adopted a mental moniker for myself: Rotkappchen. Honoring the original language of the fairy tale, I see myself as Red
Riding Hood skipping through the forest with a basket, collecting items of interest (long after her visit to grandmother’’ house). The forest is deep and dark, full of mis-marked paths and
charlatans. But, the items in the basket hold clues and provide opportunity for overcoming the dangers of the forest — similar to the items/tokens needed in an electronic game in order to proceed
(my favorite example, Zork).

1: Data is Not Information

The standard continuum reads: data, information, knowledge, wisdom. There are many sources to describe the distinctions – many of them are wrong or are simply interpreted incorrectly. After
10 years of struggling in the dark forest I was thrilled to find a token dropped by Richard Saul Wurman in 1990: it isn’t information until it Informs.

Out of print, his first version of Information Anxiety is full of fabulous tidbits. Disheartenly, many of the
observations he made over a decade ago are still true: “While numerous fields are involved with the storage and transmission of information, virtually none is devoted to translating it into
understandable forms for the general public.” Even within that quote, his use of the word “information” would have been more accurate if the term had been “data”.

The best representation of the data continuum belongs to Nathan Shedroff (a former apprentice to Mr. Wurman). [See online page 3 at: www.nathan.com/thoughts/unified/3.html] Mr. Wurman saw fit to include Nathan’s diagram in his newer Information Anxiety 2, titled “An Overview of Understanding” (pg. 20). There, Nathan echoes my concerns: “Data and
information, although words used interchangeably in our language and our culture, are not the same. Not only does information have more value, it takes more work to create and communicate. For all
the talk of this being the Information Age, it would be more accurate to call it, instead, the Age of Data – though this is still not the case.” A song I’ve been singing, loudly,
for over 10 years.

To make sure the distinction is clear, I offer an analogy I created years ago for an assignment while in the Data
Resource Management Program
at the University of Washington. You’re on foot, lost in the Mojave desert. You come upon a deserted gas station. On the counter is a map of the area. Is the
map data or information?

Based on the definition proposed by many, it would be information, because it is data in context. But that would be wrong, because the definition does not account for ‘which context’
the data is in. Data is not information until it is in ‘user-relevant’ context. The map is not in a relevant context – there is no ‘you are here’ reference on it,
therefore it is just another piece of useless data in the hands of the recipient.

Those of us who lived through the “green-bar” era of technology remember the vision of stacks of paper pilled over and under desks for months on end. The reams of ‘almost
useless’ paper delivered by the minions of the CIO labeled “reports” – supposedly information fruits. While their value as information was questionable, no one could throw
them away, because it was their only means of directly accessing the data they needed to create information. These reports were repeatedly referenced and re-entered into spreadsheets for more
meaningful results.

Those same ‘rogue’ spreadsheets became the bane of every CIO in the nation as they looked for ways to manage information across the corporation. They didn’t realize that those spreadsheets
were a symptom of a problem – the problem of data noise and information scarcity.

Like a virus, the problem has spread and now proliferates via online channels. Even when a Web site attempts to ‘inform’, it is often done at a cost so high that the recipient withdraws
their ‘investment’ (represented by ‘time’ and ‘patience’) before attaining the desired results (ala. flipping through inches and inches of green-bar reports of

Corollary: Start with the end at the beginning. Think, as a recipient: “Where am I, and what do I need to know now? What do I already know that I need to leverage? What might I have forgotten
that I need to be reminded of? What is my context and how does it change?” Leverage the annoying Verizon, “Can you hear me now? Can you hear me now?”, or kids in the car insisting
“Are we there yet?”. The metric for the successful delivery of data as information is, can you answer, “So what?”

2: Technologists Cannot Deliver Information

While a cab driver can deliver a baby, most women don’t write cab drivers into their optimal labor and delivery scenario. Relying on technologists to deliver information is like having a cab
driver deliver the baby. Yes, they can do it, but only under optimal conditions – but they sure can drive you to the emergency room afterward.

Problem is, there aren’t too many information emergency rooms to be found in most corporations. In addition, just as in the delivery of a baby, the complete delivery process involves a number
of assistants/professionals before deemed successful (think, pre and post delivery).

Corollary: The skillsets on the floors of most IT (Information Technology) groups do not include the breadth of skills required to support an ‘optimal’ delivery. Hmm, perhaps
there’s a clue. If the collective of resources under the domain of a CIO is called IT, then perhaps the mis-moniker could be corrected by simply re-labeling them CITO.

3: Technology is Useless Without ‘People’ and ‘Process’

CIOs don’t champion people or process. We say ‘people, process and technology’ but only directly address technology. Companies will continue to fail (to attain their potential)
until they add exclusive executive ownership/responsibility for people and process.

There’s a reason that departmental-specific technology groups can fail: they rarely effectively champion cross-company technology efficiencies. Why? They don’t have the
perspective/authority or even time to focus on issues outside of their domain. To assume that the nuances of ‘people and process’ are taken care of by individual departments follows the
same flawed model.

While executive authority is needed as a champion for people and process, in the near-term, a single executive could sufficiently represent both areas. Why? Because the processes most lacking
attention are those that are people-facing. All other processes are departmental specific. Certainly, manufacturing groups understand the significance of managing, in order to optimize, processes.
GM, at one time (and maybe still does), had a Chief Process Officer. But the processes that have no responsibility — no place for triage, no emergency room to speed to for attention – are
those that are human facing. The people stuff.

Funny (not really), there is no direct executive authority for the one variable that is solely responsible for the existence of any business: people. Many arguments can be postured to validate the
value of various groups (think resources) within a business: technology, engineering (product), sales, etc. Reality is that at the heart of everything a business does, there is an exchange made. On
both the delivery and receipt end of that exchange are two human beings (as we learned from Enron, it’s better if the two are ‘different’ people). Even when transactions are
completed electronically, they are done so based on fulfilling the needs of humans on both ends.

The optimization of an exchange between two human beings requires the application of many evolving disciplines: human factors, usability, information architecture, learning theory,
cognitive theory, interaction design, experience design, technical communication, and others. Yet,
few corporations have job titles/responsibilities that envelop these disciplines. For those that can be found, the individuals practicing these disciplines are buried deep in a single area of
focus. Even their perspectives are often skewed when confronted with strategic-level opportunities. And they are not part of a large collective where they can leverage each other’s resources and
adaptive learnings within the company.

Don’t get confused with the whole “Knowledge Officer” diversion, though there are some who claim to focus on
people and process. Given that we’re doing so badly delivering information, the whole knowledge pursuit is a moot point. In fact, the use of the term is yet another testament to mis-matched
terms. In most instances, KOs are singled out (made distinct from their CIO/CTO counterparts) to focus on the management of complex data types: documents, etc. (more recently collectively
represented as Content Management). It’s still all data; just different types of data.

Corollary: The first companies to align executive authority to people and process will gain significant competitive advantage.

Closing Remarks

The thoughts shared here will be deemed even remotely successful if every time you hear the term CIO in the future, it makes you tilt your head slightly, as if to make sense of it.


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About Paula Thornton

Most recently serving as the Information Architect for warehouseMCI - http://www.dbpd.com/9712Grim.htm, Paula Thornton works to act as an "industry facilitator," directed by an irreverent but respectful attitude toward progress in the industry.