The CEO of a leading consumer goods company was unhappy with his CIO. An important competitor was gaining market share at a disquieting pace by using social media and data analysis to target customers more effectively. When asked about these developments, the CIO outlined some potential responses, but he didn’t follow through on them. Instead, according to the CEO, the CIO remained preoccupied with “keep the lights on” IT projects and was therefore unable to gain traction with the business leaders and others within the company who would be critical in helping to address the new competitive challenge.

This type of disconnect—between what’s top of mind for CEOs and the attitudes and abilities of IT leaders—is all too common. The symptoms will be recognizable to many executives. IT leaders are often trapped in the status quo, their principal focus being to keep a company running in the face of sharply increasing demands and tight budgets. A lot have the desire but lack the capacity to deliver beyond basic IT needs.

Meanwhile, many CEOs we know confess they have little knowledge of where IT money is spent, how that spending squares with technology opportunities and threats, or how to improve the fit between dollars and strategic priorities. What’s more, the CEO’s engagement with the IT organization is fleeting, occurring primarily at budget time and thus reinforcing the idea that IT is a support function that should focus on low-cost service. That engagement can also be frustrating, as when delays and cost overruns plague big projects.

Dealing with this disconnect has acquired new urgency as the financial stakes rise1 and new technology trends—the growth of big data, the proliferation of smartphones, cloud computing, heightened levels of automation enabled by embedded sensors and the “Internet of Things”—shape strategy and disrupt business models in unprecedented ways.

CEOs who aren’t continually asking themselves and their organizations how they can harness trends such as these to change the game are likely to get blindsided. To avoid that outcome, they need to shake things up by inserting themselves into the technology debate—difficult though that may be—and insisting that meaningful conversations take place.

The swift and radical changes taking place today in the technology landscape create opportunities that extend far beyond IT’s traditional ambit. To seize them, CEOs should elevate the debate by asking targeted questions that push technology beyond its lights-on status and toward the core of a company’s ongoing strategy.

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