Technology chiefs belong in the C-Suite

June 30, 2011, 9:00 AM UTC

Chief information officers aren’t just tech buyers. Increasingly, they’re strategic thinkers.

Chief information officers wouldn’t make anyone’s short list of the most important executives running a company. After all, why single out the top purchaser of servers and software, a glorified geek if ever there was one, as anything other than a role player whose job it is to keep things running and otherwise stay mum?

Here’s why: As technology increasingly has become the driver of productivity gains in the economy, corporations have come to recognize the strategic advantage of putting a big thinker with business chops in charge of picking the right gizmos — and more. Or, in the words of Starbucks CIO Stephen Gillett, “The role of the CIO is to really challenge and harness the talent and capabilities of the people you lead.”

Gillett’s decision-making is a case in point. The coffee purveyor’s IT chief since 2008, Gillett also runs digital initiatives for Starbucks (SBUX). He spearheaded its move to free Wi-Fi in all its stores coupled with a portal that includes free access to normally paid content, like the Wall Street Journal.

By paying attention to how consumers were already using technology, Gillett was able to steer Starbucks in a customer-friendly direction that comes with fresh revenue opportunities. “We become a controlled window for trial and awareness for these properties,” says Gillett, sounding more like a business-development exec than a bits-and-bytes man.

Even the traditional role of the CIO — buying equipment — has evolved. Smart chief executives know that a CIO who understands money and technology can use tech purchases to cut costs, stimulate innovation, and improve efficiency. Gillett says Starbucks used the financial downturn — a time when the company’s slowing growth took the pressure off opening new stores — to redesign its proprietary point-of-sale payment system from top to bottom, cutting costs and improving customer service speed in the process.

And so as Fortune selects the executives who will make up our Executive Dream Team — our equivalent of corporate all-stars — we’ll be looking for CIOs who have deployed technology in strategically savvy ways: Consider how FedEx (FDX), under CIO Rob Carter, has been a pioneer at utilizing wireless technology to move parcels through the company’s massive network. Or how Cisco (CSCO) IT chief Rebecca Jacoby has lowered costs and increased employee accountability by letting employees choose their own laptops. Being CIO may never be the most obvious path to a corporation’s top job. But no longer will the IT chief be relegated to the second string of folks in charge.

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This article is from the July 4, 2011 issue of Fortune.