Are CIOs Undone By the Geek Factor?

In this study snapshot, we learn how bias-based IT stereotypes may hold back chief information officers from greater impact in the executive suite
CIO working overtime at a computer under a lamp illustration

Given that technology holds strategic importance for just about any organization, the chief information officer (CIO) should be a prime mover on the executive team. The CIO is the keeper of technology —developing new systems, protecting against risks, controlling expenses and identifying new value from digital transformation.

But in the confines of the executive suite, the CIO is often last among equals. In surveys over the years, CIOs themselves say they struggle to exert strategic leadership and earn credibility. 

Do CIOs lack strategic thinking skills? Are they dragged down by IT operational needs? Do they shoulder unrealistic expectations of what technology can deliver?

Or perhaps another factor is at play: an IT bias.

The buzz around CIOs is that they are technically competent but socially inept, introverted and poor communicators. This IT bias may be harsh, unfair and ultimately unproven. But it may explain why CIOs seem to sit in a small chair at the big table.

This study examines whether a CIO bias exists and, if it does, whether it shapes how CIOs are evaluated. 

What did the study find?

  • The research found evidence for a CIO stereotype held by both business students and experienced senior managers. 
  • CIOs were perceived as technologically knowledgeable and innovative, but also as highly detail-oriented and task-focused. 
  • CIOs were also considered less qualified for strategic initiatives and were punished more harshly for mistakes when in that role. 

How was the study designed?

The research is based on surveys and experiments involving undergraduate business students and senior managers from large- and medium-sized organizations. In the experiments, participants were put through two scenarios involving a CIO, a chief marketing officer (CMO) and a chief financial officer (CFO). In one, they considered the suitability of the three executives to serve on a high-level strategic committee versus an operational committee. In the other, they were asked to evaluate the poor the performance of the CIO, CMO, and CFO in a strategy-related role.

What do I need to know?

CIOs tend to be viewed as problem solvers rather than business leaders. This stereotype may limit their opportunities to contribute to the strategic direction of their organization. All too often, perception is reality.

What can organizations and CIOs themselves do to counter these stereotypes? Organizations can commit to reducing the ambiguity around the CIO function. More so than other senior executives, CIOs have a number of distinct roles, from service provider to innovation evangelist to transformation champion. “The more ambiguity surrounding the CIO role,” the researchers write, “the more perceptual measures (with potential cognitive distortions) are used in judging the CIO performance.”

As for CIOs, the researchers suggest they avoid using technical jargon in favour of more common business metaphors, and simplify their reports. They note that some CIOs have even hired communication specialists to re-brand their IT units.

CIOs can also work harder to find ways to bring new business to the organization, perhaps by partnering with the CMO. And they should be mindful of first impressions, because these often stick. “Newly appointed CIOs often spend more time in operational duties at the beginning of their appointments and slowly start increasing time spent on strategic initiatives,” the researchers note. “This first impression of the CIO as an ‘operational manager’ may be difficult to change.”


TitleThe CIO stereotype: Content, bias, and impact

Authors: Paola Gonzalez (Rowe School of Business); Laurence Ashworth and James McKeen (Smith School of Business)

PublishedJournal of Strategic Information Systems


Alan Morantz

Smith School of Business

Goodes Hall, Queen's University
Kingston, Ontario
Canada K7L 3N6

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