Two narratives concerning the CIO-CMO relationship are doing the rounds at the moment in marketing circles and the media. The premise for both is way in which customer interaction is evolving, with an increasing emphasis on digital channels, mobile technology and social media.

The first narrative is positive in nature. It says that IT and marketing leaders can unlock incremental business benefit by working together more closely. A better coordinated approach allows the organisation to move quickly and effectively as both technology and customer behaviour evolve.

The second narrative is more sinister. The argument goes that Chief Marketing Officers (CMOs) have already lost patience with the unresponsive and unimaginative internal IT function. They are turning to their creative agencies, cloud providers and 'shadow IT' resources to solve more of their IT needs.

As is often the case with the rhetoric we hear from vendors and pundits, both of these lines have an element of reality underpinning them. However, as the messages have been simplified and condensed into sound bites such as "The CMO now has more IT spending power than the CIO", some essential points get pushed to one side.

Beyond making sure that customers can engage freely across all digital channels, which is the discussion we hear the most, we see relatively little about optimising and coordinating interactions across traditional person-to-person mechanisms (call-centre, field sales, field service, etc), which remain critical.

Another problem is that the relationship-lifecycle dimension of the discussion is also often skirted over. Customer interaction needs to be considered from initial marketing, through sales and delivery, to the provision of service thereafter. The customer wants, and should receive, a joined up experience throughout this process.

This is where the rhetoric starts to deviate significantly from real world practicality.

The CMO, for example, may take care of brand and image management, overall positioning and messaging, and the campaigns designed to create sales leads. Responsibility for sales itself, however, generally falls to another member of the senior management team. Logistics and operations activity necessary to fulfil what has been sold is then another separate executive jurisdiction, as is customer service thereafter.

The point is that in the majority of organisations, no single executive holds overall responsibility for customer engagement on an end end-to-end basis.

Against his background, terms like the ‘CMO Agenda’ that typically refer to the need for flexible and coherent multi-channel communication across customer lifecycle should not be taken literally. If a CMO is in place (and let’s remember that many organisations still don’t recognise such a role), the chances are that most of what’s talked about in relation to the customer experience falls outside their remit.

To make sense of the rhetoric, we must therefore interpret the messages as a call to action for the senior management team as a whole. It might be tempting to switch labels and refer to the ‘CEO Agenda’, but then that’s misleading in another way. While CEOs need to take customer experience seriously, they also have a lot of other things to worry about.

So how do we create the right level of focus on what is now inescapably a fundamental business imperative as customers become more connected, more informed and generally more empowered?

First and foremost it’s necessary to start breaking down traditional barriers and getting senior managers thinking, planning and acting together much more effectively than most are today. Our research tells us that one of the biggest impediments to business transformation and optimisation is fragmentation of ‘ownership’ across key business processes and functions.

If this isn’t addressed, no amount of clever technology or outsourcing activity will have the level of strategic impact wished for. Furthermore, unilateral, independent action within specific departments is likely to just aggravate the situation.

With this in mind, some advocate creating a new role overlaying traditional functions to drive better harmony across all aspects of the business. Others say that this is best achieved through a cross functional body made up of representatives from all departments that touch the customer.

Either way, the CIO role remains key. One way or another, pretty much all customer engagement nowadays is dependent on systems and information. Who better to identify disjoints, therefore, and explore practical solutions for removing them?

Given this, the apparent celebration by some vendors and pundits of unilateral IT-related activity on the part of CMOs (and other department heads) could be seen as irresponsible. There is nothing inherently wrong with shadow IT and the tactical use of external expertise and cloud services, provided someone is thinking about the cross functional and governance related implications.

As with so many things in business, success stems from people working together. So let’s stop encouraging anarchy and disharmony, and focus on optimising the IT function as the best way of enabling the business in a rapidly moving world.

By Dale Vile, Freeform Dynamics