CIOs Feel Threatened by CMOs. Be a Better Partner

By Terry White | 1.5.19

Many CIOs feel disregarded and threatened.

I know this from first-hand experience. I was a CIO for 10 years and have advised and mentored CIOs for another 20 odd years, so I’ve been there and seen that. There are many good CIOs; and there are equally as many feeling threatened.


CIOs feel threatened by their executive colleagues and by the constant onslaught of technology developments. Plus, as IT shifts into the hands of CIOs’ peers and progressive customers, not only does the dynamics of “ownership” shift, but also communication between CIOs and any detractors is instant. CIO who don’t make drastic changes to the way their IT operation works won’t be able to cope with these threats.

CIOs also are threatened by three damning statements: “IT costs too much,” “I don’t know much about IT, but…” and “IT doesn’t add value.” All three statements are frequently linked to deliver a triple whammy – often at budget time.

Many executives believe that IT costs too much because it is relatively expensive and doesn’t appear to provide significant benefits. This problem here is that the CIO doesn’t articulate or prove those benefits. Tracking and proving IT’s benefits is doable but difficult, and few companies have benefits-realisation programs. They should, though, and the CIO should be leading this initiative.

Executives who say they “don’t know much about IT” actually don’t know (and shouldn’t need to know) the jargon that CIOs often use. Instead, CIOs should be explaining any necessary technical intricacies, in the languages that their executive peers speak: business and English. Many CIOs’ first language is, of course, technology. CIOs who won’t speak English and business to help build partnerships with their non-IT peers probably feel threatened.

If the “IT doesn’t add value” argument appears to be true it’s because IT doesn’t add value in traditional ways. It sustains value, creates certainty, unlocks value, builds new paths of action, and creates new value where none existed before. The problem is that CIOs are challenged to describe these “value” statements in the usual ROI or cost- and risk-reduction terms. So, CIOs needs to be thinking way outside the traditional box to demonstrate value to the organisation.

How CMOs threaten CIOs

Yet, of all these threats, the CMO is probably the greatest.

Forbes predicts that digital marketing spend will increase to $120 billion by 2021 at a rate of 11 percent per year. But Forbes also says that this spend is not the “spray and pray” spend that dominated the scene until 2012; it is now spend directly linked to goals and measures of previous success. Here’s where CMOs threaten CIOs in terms of digital marketing:

  • What say does the CIO have in this spend on technology? Not much, if at all.

  • Where will the budget come from? CIOs already have problems justifying their budget.

  • Should marketing spend directly on IT, or should all IT spending go through the CIO? All technology has to fit together and interface with other systems, so the CIO is threatened by maverick marketing spend on IT.


There are other threats from marketing, as well. There is the existential threat of the blending roles of IT and marketing. Consider the customer experience: CX is customers’ journey through an entire organisation as it relates to them — billing, support, account management, and so on.

What’s marketing got to do with CX? Everything. But what about billing and all the rest? you ask. Shouldn’t backend systems be the sole purview of the CIO? Research shows that customer experience is often cemented (or liquefied) at the customer on-boarding stage of the relationship. Who is responsible if there’s an issue? The CIO, or the CMO? Marketing’s increasing ownership and driving of CX adds to the threat.

Another threat to CIOs is that marketing knows what customers want. And know they want it now. Traditional IT development operations often have a backlog of IT requests, so IT rarely can deliver “now” or even in the next few months. They’ll say it’s complicated, integrated, expensive, and that marketing can’t keep changing the goalposts. (A marketing friend of mine calls them “the abominable no-men”).

Customers’ demands are quixotic at best, and traditional IT can’t keep up. CIOs, and their teams, need to be as agile as the changing demands coming in from customers. Agile IT development specifically helps small deliverables happen faster and makes medium-term goals less rigid.

Be aware though, that agile affects all parts of the business — so CMOs can’t demand agility from the CIO and not make significant changes, as well. Product life-cycles, technological change, and customer expectations are changing so rapidly that agile is the only way to survive. CIOs who aren’t already agile, or actively implementing it, are feeling threatened in a big way.

In his Provocateur column, RedPoint Global Chief Marketing and Strategy Officer John Nash said: “Modern CMOs who don’t use data effectively may just as well hand over their customers to the competition.” He’s right of course, but — you guessed it — add a threatened CIO and the CMO will find great difficulty in getting access to useful data. It’s not a wilful resistance on the CIO’s part, but cleaning data, creating “one version of the truth,” linking data from various systems, and putting the data into an accessible and manipulate-able form is a lot of work and costs money and time. And the CIO has other things to spend that time and money on.

The list of threats goes on.

What does a non-threatened CIO look like?

Here’s the profile of a CIO who doesn’t feel threatened.


A non-threatened CIO:

  • Never uses jargon, and can explain technical concepts simply and without being superior

  • Measures IT performance in business terms. Meeting a service-level agreement is a hygiene factor not a performance metric

  • Can explain the IT budget in business terms, with business goals and measures of performance

  • Sets up and uses that budget in partnership with every other departmental budget; it’s not “my” budget, but “our” budget

  • Never talks cost without talking real and measured benefits

  • Has a benefits-realisation program in place, and tracks and reports benefits

  • Spends 20 percent of her time on technology, 60 percent on business operations, and 20 percent on strategy and leadership. (This was the expectation of more than 100 CEOs I interviewed in my book What Business Really Wants from IT.)

  • Drives digital marketing and CX in partnership with her own digitalisation programs

  • Has a fully agile capability, and can deliver within weeks if necessary

  • Provides clean, normalised, relevant, and up-to-date data — and the tools with which to analyse these data

  • Is not threatened, because she partners with her executive peers to drive business results


How can CMOs be a better partner?

If your CIO misses out on some points, well, there are your action items. Discuss this article with your CIO and after you’ve gotten over the indignant name-calling (my name), ask the CIO what she’s doing in each of these areas. There are fairly large implications to some of these, so be prepared to partner with your CIO. Saying, “It’s your problem, get it done” is both threatening and immature.

Start the process with a general discussion on the increased technological challenges for marketing. Discuss how marketing and IT should work together in partnership to achieve business goals. Be specific about these business goals, and work out a plan to work together to achieve them. Then you can discuss budgets, and how to link the marketing and IT budgets to reach those business goals. Talk about delivery and speed. Discuss agile approaches for both departments. Then discuss how you will mutually track performance and behaviours of both departments, and how — when measures fall short  — both of you will go about redressing them. Talk about benefits and value, and how you will work together to demonstrate them. Mostly, you both need to meet often.

Threatening a CIO is counterproductive, so you have to work on a way for both of you to succeed as partners.

About the Author

Terry White is an associate researcher for IT research company Ovum. He advises and mentors CIOs (and other executives) on how to manage IT during the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Terry is the author of three books on IT management, a number of academic papers, and numerous articles.

Find him on LinkedIn.