Hold on for more doom and gloom: This is the dreaded year when the chief marketing officer allegedly will have a larger actual information technology budget than the CIO, as Gartner gloomily predicted. Is this really the sea change many have predicted? Is the professional IT executive more of a junior partner in the C-suite, rather than an equal among colleagues?

Well, hold on. The midsize enterprise CIO certainly has faced a perceived loss of prestige and power over the past two decades. Those of us who’ve been in the industry can remember the exciting dot-com golden age back in the 1990s. That was a time when the CIO was a rock star, transforming his or her company to compete as never before, using the new world of the Web. Netscape, Amazon.com, Cisco and other companies were remaking the world of business, as never before.

The CIO was the right-hand person to the CEO and sometimes reported directly to the board of directors. The budgets to purchase Web-enabling hardware and software systems were vast and hardly questioned. 

Career Pendulum Swings For IT Exec

Not so much today: The CIO's purse strings have definitely tightened. One can lament this fall in prestige, whether it is real, or merely an exaggerated misperception. But we can learn something about excessive spending that isn't guided by a clear and reasoned plan. Because, realistically, in those dot-com boom years, lots of money got thrown around — and not always wisely.

There was a lot of enterprise IT asset sprawl, and integration and architecture were subordinate to the process of just expanding out and enabling end users. For instance, millions were spent on ecommerce marketplaces and other systems that didn’t necessarily create an ROI. There was some disillusionment in the magic power of the Web to enable all things. Some of the high-flying Web visionaries had to come to earth, not always gently. 

More meaningfully, there was a drop not just in CIO buying power, but in the CIO's power over IT purchases overall. This isn’t so much that the CIO is irrelevant: It’s that the end user is more IT savvy and empowered. The market is driving this: More and more, end users bypass best practices and the IT department via the bring your own device, bring your own application, (and at some organizations) bring your own IT universe policies. It’s all too easy in the world of app marketplaces, free consumer file sync-and-share services, cloud, and mobile devices to just download an attractive tool with a great front end, but without a secure underlying platform. 

Getting Smarter, Not Bigger

Given this situation, the reality dictates that to stay relevant, the CIO doesn’t need to be the biggest IT consumer in an organization. What counts is that he or she can be the smartest, and the most effective.

We know the CIO must oversee certain routine functions: Keep the phones and email systems going, make sure Russian cyber crooks don’t breach the network, and so on. But besides that, the role of the CIO is far more than mere routine: It involves being a Chief Innovation Officer who finds new ways to digitize the business. If you think in terms of that, you don't need to just throw money around. You can aim the money for the greatest effect. For starters, that can include guiding the free-spending end users and helping them stay safe and compliant. 

So here are a few things to keep in mind if you are in one of those companies ready to make IT investments this year:

Get smart and agile. Don’t just digitize your company: Make it smarter. Close more deals with the same resources, leveraging business analytics for personalization, predictive analysis, and the like.

Get safe. Go to the CEO and board for buy-in to make your enterprise ironclad safe. Establish best practices for security, both internally and when LOB leaders want to contract with cloud service providers. (Here’s a handy article on managed service provider selection.)

Enforce data/content handling compliance. Be sure that data and content are safely stored, have proper expiration deadlines, and so forth. And make sure that the other branches of the business are buying and deploying only safe applications when touching this data.

Raise the corporate IT intelligence quotient. Sponsor training for the end users so they know their responsibilities and don’t compromise the network. Make sure everyone has clear guidelines at what data are corporate and private, and which can be public; social media do’s and don’ts; and so on.

Remember: The biggest budget isn’t best. The smartest budget is.