With every advance, executives' roles change

  • Article by: ISAAC CHEIFETZ
  • Updated: February 16, 2014 - 1:06 PM

With four technology revolutions happening at once, the titles and responsibilities of those leading companies need to change with and reflect the times.

There are currently four information technology revolutions occurring simultaneously and interactively — social, mobile, analytics and cloud, or as Cognizant Consulting has named it, the “SMAC stack.”

They’re increasingly changing the nature of work and job roles. Analytics arguably is having the biggest impact.

This sort of disruptive change is nothing new. The Industrial Age and the Information Age both drove new organizational structures and jobs. Most of the business executive titles we consider standard today are not much more than 100 years old, and are a result of the cumulative impact of a series of technology and process innovations over the past 150 years:

Chief executive officer: The rise of publicly traded companies in the mid-19th century led to large companies being managed by a senior executive employee, rather than by the companies’ owner.

Chief financial officer: 100 years ago, DuPont and General Motors responded to the growing complexity of giant industrial enterprises by pioneering management accounting, a set of financial tools that allowed managers to make strategic decisions about capital allocation. This elevated finance from a tactical discipline managed by a controller to a strategic one, overseen by a CFO.

Chief marketing officer: Companies used to make a product, and then try to sell it. Henry Ford captured the rigidity when in 1909 he wrote: “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants, so long as it is black.”

In the decades since World War II, and the rise of mass consumer markets, the explosion of product variations and targeted consumer advertising on electronic media (radio, television and Internet) has led to marketing as a complex discipline that is the strategic backbone of most industries.

Chief information officer: Computers have been part of business for nearly 50 years. Some companies innovated with computing for decades. But as recently as 20 years ago, a company could be successful using IT for tactical, back-office purposes only — accounting, inventory and payroll. A tactical IT function was managed by a director of data processing. But an IT function tasked with adding strategic business value has driven the rise of the CIO.

What are some of the new titles being spurred by the SMAC stack revolution? Here are four that are moving from the innovative edge of organizations to the mainstream:

Chief digital marketing officer: The rise of big data analytics has turbocharged the role of vice president of online marketing. Digital, multichannel marketing is becoming so important so quickly that it may soon become indistinguishable from a chief marketing officer, who will have a digital marketing competence.

Vice president of customer experience: The power of social networks is as a platform for companies to interact directly with individual consumers on Twitter and Facebook, in full view of the world. The VP of customer experience is tasked with being an internal advocate for this more powerful consumer.

However, the position is ultimately a matrixed role, with influence, not true authority. As such, candidates for this role who do not have a long history and high credibility within the company are less likely to be successful in effecting change as a customer advocate.

Chief analytics officer: These executives are traditionally limited to companies where analytics is central to their products — marketing researcher AC Nielsen, for instance. But analytics is becoming so important in certain industries, such as health care delivery, that the person in charge of providing analytic insights may begin to approach the CFO in importance.

Chief data officer: Organizations are inundated with overwhelming volumes of data, structured and unstructured. The data is useful to the extent it is organized effectively and efficiently. So the role of a chief data officer is an obvious one. Unfortunately, it is not at all clear that data can be turned into useful information by anyone other than the person managing the business unit, or company.

This lesson was learned the hard way from the Total Quality Management and Six Sigma “Lean” initiatives of the 1980s and ’90s, when chief quality officers were unable to get general managers running businesses to change their behavior. Ultimately, “Lean” was successful when incorporated into day-to-day management practices. So it will be with turning data into information.

We are advising our clients about the importance of taking the trouble to re-engineer these new roles to align them with business goals, rather than cobbling together old job descriptions. Future columns will explore how to design, hire and get hired for these 21st-century roles.

About the author: Isaac Cheifetz is president of Open Technologies, a Minneapolis-based executive search consultancy for information and IT industries. Reach him at isaac@opentechnologies.com or on Twitter at @isaaccheifetz.

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