This post describes two distinct eras of IT leadership that we have been through, and postulates that we are entering a third era—one that is fundamentally different from prior eras. While the first two were characterized by centralized leadership, the emerging third era is dispersed and networked, emphasizing a different set of skills for IT leaders. This is not a return to the old ‘decentralized’ IT operating model of times long gone. The dawn of the new era explains the emergence of the Business Relationship Manager as a key IT leadership role.

The Era of the Data Processing Manager


I entered the IT profession in 1970. This was an era of mainframe computers, typically housed in large air-conditioned clean room environments (often called ‘glass houses‘.) Data input was via locally connected peripherals such as punched card and paper tape readers, and output was similarly via punched card and tape, supplemented by fanfold printed paper and magnetic tape.

During this era, technical specialists performed almost every aspect of computing, some with ‘light’ skills (e.g., card punch operator, computer operator) and others with ‘heavy’ skills (e.g., programmer, systems programmer). Business professionals had little to do with computing other than participate (marginally!) in the specification of needed systems, and utilize the output of those systems to manage their business domain.

As its name implies, IT leadership during this era was vested in the hands of a Data Processing Manager—often someone who had worked up through the ranks of computer operator, programmer, analyst, and project manager. The emphasis was on central management of data processing resources, and demanded mostly technical skills.

Towards the end of this era, locally connected peripherals were augmented by Visual Display Terminals (screen and keyboard), later supplemented by remote peripherals such as a variety of input/output devices such as retail Point of Sale terminals, connected over telephone lines. The days of the glass house were coming to an end, and with that, IT leadership evolved to the next era.

The Era of the Chief Information Officer

In the late-1970’s, with the shattering of the glass house, business people (i.e., non computer specialists) became more directly involved in computing. Data entry migrated from data entry clerks to the point of source, and data entry and viewing of output merged, using remote computer terminals and keyboard/display devices. Powerful end user tools such as report generators, business analytics and so-called Fourth Generation Languages such as APL and Focus meant that business people were able to meet departmental and personal computing needs with little-to-no intervention by computing professionals. With the introduction of the IBM PC in1981, personal computers became a legitimate and ultimately transformational peripheral on the enterprise computing scene. The underlying architecture of computing changed from mainframe to client-server.

Often, with the expansion of the IT periphery from the glass house to the enterprise and beyond, IT functions began to coalesce around Business Units, leading to a decentralization of IT. This typically resulted in a lack of integration, challenges managing enterprise data, and high costs due to multiple redundant systems, often highly customized to fit idiosyncratic business processes.

In order to bring order to the chaos, the job of Data Processing Manager evolved to that of Chief Information Officer (CIO)—an officer of the enterprise, often a member of the senior leadership team, or “C-Suite.” With this shift, while most CIOs still came from a data processing background, business skills become more important to the job, as computing escaped from the glass house and became more prevalent across the enterprise and integral to executing and improving business process.

CIOs were charged with ‘transforming’ enterprise computing, often a journey of 5-years or more, consolidating and standardizing IT infrastructure, rationalizing enterprise applications and establishing enterprise service management and solution delivery capabilities. The C-Suite status was important to helping CIOs accomplish this.

Today, most companies of scale have centralized some or all parts of the Enterprise IT realm, including infrastructure (broadly defined as foundational services shared across the enterprise), enterprise applications (e.g., ERP and CRM) and in many cases, enterprise and even Business Unit applications. Enterprise computing has gained respect, and IT leadership is seen as a crucial management discipline.

The last few years in the rapidly evolving history of computing have been both dynamic and revolutionary. With a confluence of forces, from the Internet, Cloud Computing, Social Media, Mobile Computing, Smart Phones, Tablets, and the Internet of Everything, computing has fully escaped from the glass house. With powerful User Interfaces and end user tools, the perennial (and elusive!) pursuit of business-IT alignment is being subsumed by business-IT convergence—roles that hitherto required a highly trained computer expert are now being undertaken by mere mortals. A new architecture has emerged—web-based, and with it the availability of ‘everything-as-a-service’ (e.g., Software-as-a-Service, Infrastructure-as-a-Service.)

The Era of the Business Relationship Manager

With this shift in computing architecture, roles that were traditionally considered part of the IT organization are converging with business operations and becoming business roles. With convergence, enterprise IT leadership is migrating from a centrally managed function to a distributed and dispersed role that bridges between the waning world of IT specialists to the emerging world of business computing generalists.

This is the emerging age of the Business Relationship Manager (BRM), in some respects a complement to the CIO, but playing a very different role, better suited to the forces of business-IT convergence. In fact, from my experience, the most successful CIOs were highly skilled practitioners of Business Relationship Management. Those same skills now must be applied much closer to the business unit or process level.

Below is a table differentiating the CIO and BRM as IT leaders.

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Table 1: CIO v.s BRM as IT Leaders

Are You Prepared for the New Era of IT Leadership?

While there will always be important roles for technology experts, as information and IT permeate every aspect of business, industry and government, the leadership roles are going to belong to those who:

  • • can bridge from business outcomes to technology enablers
  • • skillfully surface and shape business demand for information and IT
  • • orchestrate resources to meet that demand
  • • truly understand how to turn information and IT into tangible, realized business value
  • • are passionate about sharing their knowledge for the common good, rather than positioning themselves as the experts and high priests of the IT profession
  • • are as passionate about business success and innovation as they are about IT


This post was first published on LinkedIn Pulse.

Images courtesy of IBM Archives and GovConExec