10/15/2013 08:24 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

CIO and Marketing - A Merger Or An Acquisition?

The role of CIO has come under scrutiny when a Harvard Business Review post reported that only a quarter of executives felt their CIO was performing above his or her peers. On one hand, many CIOs are being asked to take on a vastly-expanded role, to the point that Terri Griffith wonders, Are We Asking Too Much of Our CIOs? At the other extreme, Paul Rubens sees the role narrowing and asks, "Are CIOs Destined to Work for the CMO?" This is nonsense judging from the CIOs I talk with daily. Here is insight on this topic from the #9 Most Social CIO in Higher Education, Michael Berman, CIO of California State University Channel Islands (CI).


When Michael began managing information technology, the web was just beginning to gain wide-spread popularity. IT shops had quickly recognized the web's importance, even before communications and marketing specialists. Back then, web sites were often put up as experiments, with less than dazzling graphics and loosely-related content. Corporate branding was casual or non-existent. An archived example of the UC Santa Barbara home page brings back memories of that era.

Marketing folks soon recognized the role that the web would play and began to wrest control of web content from the IT shops. Thus began the sometimes-uneasy alliance between IT and marketing - typically, IT folks came to own the web technology while marketing folks owned the content; deciding what goes on the site and how it looks. This alliance has often worked well, people generally get along, and the work gets done.

However, IT and marketing departments can have very different cultures and perspectives, and misunderstandings are common. The marketing department has a solid grasp of branding and knows how to portray the overall image of the organization. They continually refine the message that needs to be conveyed. On the other hand, until recently, marketing leaders had honed their skills in a world dominated by print and broadcast media. Concepts that work in the world of print do not always translate to the digital world. This lack of comfort and familiarity with the digital media has resulted in real IT problems, like huge, slow web sites that attempt to mimic traditional print; email used as a broadcast medium; and brand marks that look fantastic on paper but don't effectively translate to the digital medium of a web page.

The IT department includes people quite comfortable with the digital world, but who rarely have the sophistication and brand-awareness of the marketing department. It is not the job of IT to understand how to best express the corporate brand. And because IT tends to speak a different language, it's not hard for a small misunderstanding between IT and marketing to escalate into culture clash, passive-aggressive behavior, and in the extreme, even deliberate sabotage. A recent Accenture survey discovered just how unhealthy the CMO-CIO relationship can be in many C-Suites.

University marketing departments have become far more sophisticated over the last decade, and now the vast majority of marketing professionals have developed good instincts for web design and digital strategy, with some possible exceptions. But just as the web has become better-understood and more routine, major changes are occurring that again threaten to upset the balance between IT and marketing. Three key changes that demand a rethinking of digital communications strategy are: data analytics, mobile devices, and social media.

These three areas - analytics, mobile devices, and social media-again favor those who can adapt rapidly to technology change, work with data, and are comfortable with new digital tools. While paper and print have not yet completely disappeared, their role is rapidly shrinking in the communications portfolio. Twenty years ago, marketing plans revolved around a handful of channels, including print, broadcast, and perhaps direct mail. Today there are literally dozens of channels for communicating the message. The only way this can work is through a tight alliance between those who understand the message and those who are most familiar with the emerging communication media - and are comfortable with rapid technology innovation.

In the area of analytics, a vast and ever-expanding array of data and analytical tools is now available to better understand customer needs and behavior. Kimberly Whitler describes how the IT and Marketing Departments need to collaborate to insure they have the proper data infrastructure aligned to business needs. Again, by working together closely, IT and marketing can extract valuable customer insight necessary to drive business results.

Although Michael's professional background has been primarily in information technology, his experience has also provided him with knowledge and insight into marketing and communication. This created the opportunity at CSUCI to bring marketing and communication into a single IT/marketing division under his direction. In effect, Michael is both the CIO and CMO. His role has become what Gartner calls a "Chief Digital Officer" or CDO, the one who "plays in the place where the enterprise meets the customer."

Bringing IT and marketing into a unified team has been a wonderful catalyst to advance CSUCI's communication strategy. The marketing and IT teams share space, see each other all day long, and draw from a single strategic vision. Areas that had languished in the past, such as developing a social media and mobile strategy, receive the combined attention of content and technology teams. Marketing and communications staffs have access to the best of IT, and now IT receives a lot of important help getting its message out. A new institutional marketing campaign was developed with marketing and technology folks at the table, assuring that a solid digital strategy was incorporated from the start.

Will combining the CIO and CMO roles into a single person become a trend? There are certainly benefits, but it may not be right for every organization. There is the challenge that many potentially great CIOs or CMOs just don't have the background or interest to combine the two areas. Regardless, a hand-in-glove alignment between technology and marketing is essential for every organization that wants to maximize the effectiveness of it message delivery. I agree with Michael that for many organizations, combining these two areas can be extremely effective. And every CIO can benefit from a better understand the needs of marketing in order to support this critical organizational function.

This post was co-authored by Michael Berman, CIO of California State University Channel Islands.