Why you should care

Because maybe getting damn good at workflow is the slow-and-steady route to the top.

Just get my email to work. That is the most common request Kevin Jennings receives on a daily basis. The calls he’s most likely to get from the C-suite and middle management alike are about the basics of unsexy information technology — and complaints that it isn’t working.

But Jennings is no lowly IT worker. He’s the chief information officer at one of the most prestigious health care systems in the world, Massachusetts General Hospital. And while he jokes that the email questions aren’t going anywhere — “We were once the chief computer officer,” he says — Jennings knows he’s in a pretty good spot these days. Because the CIO, a once-tertiary member of an executive quartet or quintet, is officially at the heart of the next big management shake-up.

Thanks to the data economy, being in charge of a company’s “information” means, well, being in charge of the company itself. This has the CIO doing more than the classic management of tech and infrastructure systems, says Prasanna Tambe, associate professor of information, operations and management sciences at NYU Stern School of Business. It also means setting organizational culture, overseeing major budgets and investment decisions — not to mention navigating a confusing landscape of colleagues whose roles are also changing.

Enterprise companies entering the brave new world of #disruptingworkflowtech are having a moment.

Like more than a few other jobs booming right along with the tech boom, the CIO has come a long way since a 1986 Business Week cover declared her the new star in management. Sure, plenty of people have known this change was coming for a time — more than once, management gurus have attempted to rechristen the CIO the chief integration officer or the chief innovation officer. (Neither has really stuck.) But something new is afoot: We’re slap-bang in the middle of the Great Workplace Productivity Zeitgeist. Last year, according to consulting firm Deloitte’s survey of CIOs, 55 percent of CIO budgets was still allocated to “business as usual” — the classic stuff like servers, routers, email — while 45 percent was directed to growth. For the past year, though, most CIOs indicated that 71 percent of budgets would go toward supporting unprecedented needs (think new data to play with and partnering with those new software-as-service companies).

And why? Enterprise companies entering the brave new world of #disruptingworkflowtech are having a moment. Take online HR company Zenefits, just valued around $4.5 billion; messaging system Slack, valued at some $2.8 billion; cloud company Box, which went public at $1.7 billion; or competitor Dropbox, which raised $1.1 billion in venture money and was valued at $10 billion last year.

Amid all this high-flying money, CIOs have a few crucial choices to make: They have to pick the right tech — Box or Dropbox? Given the importance of those external vendors, that can turn into almost a “business development role,” says Mark Mader, CEO of one of those workplace productivity companies, Smartsheet. And then CIOs find themselves in charge of companywide budgetary decisions, handling work that was once housed within marketing departments under a CMO or operations under COOs. Overall, the surfeit of new data, much of which will come in through the infrastructure the CIO oversees, may give that executive a shot at discussions about what to do with that data — a much more high-impact role than he’d otherwise have, says NYU’s Tambe.

Each industry faces its own evolutions. Software and tech companies will be, as they often are, early on the digital bandwagon, while the rise of financial technology, from mobile banking to figuring out what the what is Bitcoin, now necessitates IT-savvy folks in banking. Industries that still work with physical stuff — oil and gas, for example — will take longer, says Mark Lillie, technology consulting partner at Deloitte UK. One surprising industry that’s getting ahead is health care, proof perhaps that digital innovation is unavoidable, and where the rise of preventive care, along with recent regulations and the need for tracking patients’ info before they get sick, is one explanation, Jennings explains.

Any major change in the C-suite takes time to take hold, though. The Deloitte report found that only 10 percent of most CIO budgets was allocated for innovation, for instance. And some might argue the trend will go the other way — CIOs could find themselves threatened by the dilution of IT across multiple departments, or possibly face off against a “chief digital officer” emerging from marketing departments, suggests Lillie, because that’s where many requests for new product or updated websites come from. And then there’s managing the cultural change across the whole company, which Tambe warns can be more painful than it sounds.

So what’s the ticket to the top? Get good at systems, and maybe even develop a reputation as a particular department’s workflow queen or king. Make the right recommendation on the right product to use or vendor to partner with, and, much like a venture capitalist (as the Deloitte study parallels), that could be the key for cashing in on that investment with some lucrative professional capital.

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