CMO outspending the CIO on technology: “so what?” Here’s what.

Rarely do I write targeted responses to specific blog posts, but last week, a CMO-related article crossed my screen that I think is both representative of many people’s attitudes, and enormously flawed in its assumptions, logic, and conclusions. Esmeralda Swartz, writing for, titularly opines the following: “So What If Chief Marketing Officers Outspend CIOs On Enterprise Tech?” Even more grandiosely, the post’s subtitle is “Isn’t it possible that a technology buying process driven by marketers instead of technologists will make things better?

Well, I suppose I should allow that anything might be possible, but no, not by the unconvincing (yet not atypical) line of argument Swartz pursues, and not when you consider standard business realities. Here are a few representative quotes related to the backbone of her argument, namely that buying technology is like buying a new car:

  • “Let’s look at an everyday example. Prior to investing large sums of money in a new car, few people feel the need to master the inner workings of the internal combustion engine. “
  • “Despite all this blindness, for the most part, what we buy doesn’t let us down.”
  • “Ultimately, we’ve got a problem that buying a car solves, so we buy a car.”
  • “Buying software – wait for it – simply because it threatened to get the job done – will likely ruffle some feathers.”

Here’s the thing, though. IT systems are not cars. 

In fact, they’re not really like cars at all, in many important procurement-specific and business-related ways. When you’re buying a car, you generally don’t need to worry about whether it’ll work well with your wife’s sedan, your neighbor’s new Tesla, or your brother’s old Ford pickup truck. Cars can be an individual choice. Your choice to drive your Hummer or your Yugo essentially affects no one’s lifestyle or budget other than your own.

Enterprise technology systems and products, on the other hand, can very very rarely be chosen in a vacuum, completely independently of the context in which they’ll be deployed. There are almost always legacy issues to juggle (along with business needs) when determining what will work: integration concerns, support and maintenance headaches, staffing and training considerations. If it were just an easy matter of buying the best thing out there to perform a particular business need, wouldn’t the IT realm be a breeze. And anyone with a modicum of experience implementing systems knows this intuitively. It’s all about the integration points.

Moreover, even the writer’s view of a car purchase falls flat, in that it glosses over some very real issues that can make that process not quite as simple as she envisions. Here’s just one example: a friend of mine moved his family from California to a Detroit suburb, and rapidly concluded that he needed to sell his Toyota and buy an American brand of vehicle. In short, what he already owned (and maybe even what he actually preferred) didn’t fit well into his new environment, due to factors outside his control but which he realized there was a great need to accommodate. Idealism and preference got cast aside: he needed to weigh integration factors at least as much as his inclinations and desires. His purpose and true needs became extended beyond the mere tunnel vision that says to—wait for it—just “get the job done.” Hmm.

The post becomes its own powerful case example of why in fact we do need a CIO.

Comparing information system acquisition and/or construction to a relatively much simpler car purchase process isn’t just incorrect, it’s indicative in what it reveals about the person doing the comparing. It’s so off-base, so dismissive and cavalier (“what do you really need to know?” shrugs the author) about the many practical and well-known realities involved in the selection and upkeep of enterprise technology systems, that to me the post becomes its own powerful case example of why in fact we do need a CIO. If a CMO can misunderstand systems so completely, in other words, one might want to exercise caution in giving a CMO free rein to acquire technology solutions.  Recall that the post’s subtitle is “Isn’t it possible that a technology buying process driven by marketers instead of technologists will make things better?” In essence, the faulty reasoning in the post, to the degree it represents CMO-level depth of approach to these issues, implicitly answers that question with a resounding NO.

Only the CMO can avoid vendor lock-in?

But wait, there’s more: the post explains to us that CMOs, unlike today’s CIOs, will be able to avoid vendor lock-in as well:

“How do you market your next product if your last one created the problem you’re now trying to solve? As CMOs assume more purchasing responsibilities, they are unlikely to want to buy from poachers-turned-gamekeepers.”

This is again quite idealistic and unaware of what drives technology-related decisions in the real world. Does the writer really believe that CIOs today aren’t just as much in that same position of wanting to avoid “poachers-turned-gamekeepers”? There are actually many real-world reasons (compatibility, capability, scalability, etc.) why CIOs often continue to buy, teeth clenched, from certain providers—yes, even when the “last product created the problem we’re now trying to solve.” The author, for no clear reason, believes that CMOs will magically avoid vendor lock-in, perhaps simply through force of will; equally, she intimates that CIOs have fallen prey to such lock-in because of, what, sheer ineptitude, indifference, venality, or lack of spine? Please.

The common thread in that piece, then, is to oversimplify the role of the CIO; everything tends to look easy to the Monday-morning quarterback. The author fails to take into account the CIO role in its entirety. Contrary to what the author thinks, the CIO is not just “the guy who runs the data center“ (vs. her view of the CMO, “the guy who helps run the business”). The role has been far, far broader than that, in many/most companies, for a number of years.  As I wrote last year,

People who see the CIO’s role diminishing or IT even vanishing altogether don’t seem to understand the full range of the CIO’s responsibilities, and the importance of more, not less, technology stewardship as system access broadens. They somehow seem to view the CIO and IT predominantly as the folks who keep the servers running. If we have no in-house servers etc., they reason, why do we need IT? But, as someone recently and eloquently said, that’s like viewing the job of the parent as being the one who drops the kid off at school every day.

Gaps in the business stakeholder mindset

There are many critical aspects of acquiring or building enterprise technology systems, long familiar to technology executives, that usually escape the focus of even tech-savvy business stakeholders such as the CMO. Those aspects consist of the boring, messy, ongoing details that nearly always rear their heads with complex, intertwined applications. Among these are:

  • collecting and integrating data with other corporate resources
  • evaluating information integration and interface requirements
  • maintaining and migrating data as business needs evolve and change
  • staying on top of data security and regulatory compliance issues, again amidst constant change

To miss (not to mention ignore) such factors when acquiring technology solutions is to expose one’s company to major problems down the road, if not before.

Some may indeed argue that the tech-infused new breed of CMO will in fact take on all those aspects themselves, and will do so cheerfully, but very little in my experience has shown me that this is likely the case. Rather, a CMO (exactly as illustrated by the post I’m responding to) will focus chiefly on the business advantages that new technology capabilities can bring them, and rightly so. Yet there had better continue to be an executive out there who deals with a lot of the messiness behind the scenes, messiness that needs to be factored into technology acquisition decisions. And the messiness doesn’t go away. It especially won’t go away if one doesn’t know enough to realize it even exists, and if one shrugs off system acquisition as being just like purchasing a car.

Should there be technology involvement on the part of the CMO? By all means. I think it’s fine (but also can be at times a fine foreshadowing) when other execs “know enough to be dangerous” about technology, as long as they recognize that such dangers actually do exist and do matter. Far too many of this new breed of CMO, excited by the possibilities and what they can accomplish, gloss over those dangers, to everyone’s detriment. As on a baseball team, different positions exist for different reasons and focus.

A better approach

So, rather than spending all this energy poo-pooing the complexities and justifying open season in technology spending for other business executives like the CMO, let’s instead focus on a spirit of collaboration and executive teamwork. The business needs to work with its technology leaders towards the obvious: achieving business value, striving towards common goals, and establishing joint technology/business governance. Implying that a peer executive would ever resist acquiring a tool “because it threatened to get the job done” isn’t collaborative, isn’t an example of necessary teamwork, and just plain isn’t helpful.



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