How To Be a CEO for the Information Age

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By now the vast array of Web applications for supply-chain integration, customer relationship management, salesforce automation, work group collaboration —and the sale of everything from equities to automobiles — should make it perfectly clear that information technology has evolved beyond the role of mere infrastructure in support of business strategy. In more and more industries today, IT is the business strategy.

The implications for existing and aspiring CEOs are equally clear. Information technology is now a survival issue. Board and executive team agendas are increasingly peppered with, or even hijacked by, a growing range of IT issues. They may be explicitly IT — the company’s progress towards millennium compliance, the IT consequences of a merger or acquisition, the desired profile of a new CIO — but more and more frequently IT issues are now wrapped inside wider questions of business strategy.

What is the e-commerce opportunity for our business and how do we organize for it? As we seek to “think global and act local,” must we commit to a new generation of enterprise-wide IT systems? What combination of organizational change and new technology is required for a breakthrough in knowledge management? As one CEO said to us recently, “Nearly every strategic issue we address is now triggered by IT or has consequences for IT.” Or as one CIO put it, “Whenever anything to do with business change is on the agenda, I get called in because IT is on the critical path.”

Today, CEOs can neither avoid IT nor delegate the issues it raises to others. Business strategy and IT have become so intertwined that large corporate IT failures frequently lead to the demise of the CEO. In the Information Age, IT issues must be proactively embraced. Unfortunately, most CEOs are ill-equipped for this new world. Indeed, surprisingly few provide the necessary leadership.

One oft quoted reason is the “generation gap.” We need CEOs who have grown up in an IT-oriented world, goes the thinking. That is not our experience. We have studied and observed CEOs who have clearly made the transition to the Information Age without being born into it. They will serve as our role models as we describe what is required and how it is achieved. Because their experiences illustrate the importance of attitudes towards IT — in contrast to hands-on IT skills — we think of them as “IT believers” rather than “IT-literate CEOs.



1. M. Bensaou and M.J. Earl, “The Right Mindset for Managing Information Technology,” Harvard Business Review, volume 76, September–October 1998, pp. 118–128.

2. S.E. Prokesch, “Unleashing the Power of Learning: An Interview with British Petroleum’s John Browne,” Harvard Business Review, volume 75, September–October 1997, pp. 146–168.

3. Ibid.

4. Presentation at World Economic Forum, Davos, Switzerland, 30 January 1997.

5. M.J. Earl and D.F. Feeny, “Is Your CIO Adding Value?” Sloan Management Review, volume 35, Spring 1994, pp. 11–20.

6. See J. Cross, “IT Outsourcing: British Petroleum’s Competitive Approach,” Harvard Business Review, volume 73, May–June 1995, pp. 94–102.

7. See J. Cross, M.J. Earl, and J.L. Sampler, “Transformation of the IT Function in British Petroleum,” MIS Quarterly, volume 21, December 1997, pp. 401–423.

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