Yet Another 'Chief'? Don't Roll Your Eyes

Recently, Computerworld's Patrick Thibodeau, reporting from the Global Privacy Summit in Washington, wrote that companies are creating a new "chief" role - that of chief privacy officer (CPO). CPOs are meant to be the executives on the front line of an issue that can affect the bottom line: establishing trust with customers by creating and executing data-privacy policies.

I'm sure that talk of yet another chief officer title is raising many eyebrows, if not prompting eye-rolling, snickers and snorts. Do we really need yet another chief? Are these grand titles an effective way to respond to business pressures?

This isn't a new debate. It began when the CIO title was created and grew when chief network officers and chief knowledge officers appeared on the scene. This debate has now reached a new level of intensity, as companies appoint new chiefs such as chief awareness officer, chief competitive officer and chief visionary officer. The titles can look like a pop-management gimmick, if not downright silly. One recent article ["Too Many Chiefs," The Industry Standard, Sept. 11] ridiculed the trend by publishing an organizational chart of the future in which everyone is a chief.

But the title can do more than boost some managers' sense of self-importance. It can be a good way to focus on a problem, such as privacy, that affects the whole company but doesn't fall into a neat spot on an organizational chart.

Consider Michael Mace, the chief competitive officer at Palm Inc. According to The Wall Street Journal, Palm's president created Mace's job to help the company fend off the challenge of Microsoft Corp.'s Pocket PC. This battle between Palm and Microsoft is far from over, but so far, Mace appears to have been effective in his role. He has fought complacency within Palm's ranks, gathered critical intelligence on Microsoft's product strategy, conveyed this information in a way that prompted Palm's executives to take action and then worked with Palm's chief marketing officer and a special task force to develop and execute a response. Instead of being caught flat-footed, Palm was well-prepared to fight back when Microsoft released the Pocket PC.

The chief role worked here, not because Mace was in charge of an important function, but because he served as a focal point for information and a catalyst for early action. He wasn't single-handedly in charge of leading Palm's response to the Microsoft threat. But his post ensured that Palm had one person who always focused, with no distractions, on a critical issue. As chief competitive officer, he had a license to alert the company's top executives. And when it was time to combat Microsoft, Mace was there to supply competitive intelligence, contribute ideas and work with other managers to coordinate the response.

This kind of chief isn't the same as a CIO - Mace doesn't run a large department with a big budget. But like CIOs, these chiefs act as the corporate leadership's eyes and ears on a new and complex issue. Privacy is an issue that deserves that kind of attention. As long as the chief doesn't let his ego or zealousness run away with him to the point where he forgets that he's part of a larger executive team, a company can benefit from the focus, personal responsibility and sense of urgency that the establishment of such a role can create.

Allan E. Alter is editor in chief of the MIT Sloan Management Review and a former Computerworld editor. Contact him at alter@mit.edu.

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