CIOs need to be technical, without apology, just as chief medical officers need not apologize for their grounding in medicine.

Rob Preston, VP & Editor in Chief, InformationWeek

November 1, 2012

4 Min Read

Are people losing respect for the CIO profession, or have they just lost their perspective? While other C-level executives command authority and are lauded for IT savvy if they know how to buy a cloud service, CIOs are nitpicked for spending too much time on their core technology competency and not enough time parked in other parts of the business.

In a recent column, "Are The CIO And IT Organization Replaceable?" I wrote that CIOs need to form stronger bonds with their C-level peers and take on formal responsibilities outside of the IT organization. One former CIO, CEO and COO wrote to me to object. Why do other C-level execs think they can assume the IT function, he wrote, and why do CIOs appear to have an "inferiority complex" about their technical capabilities? The writer, Steven Poole, whose career spanned senior executive positions in the public and private sectors in Canada, raised other valid points.

Some clarifications are in order. CIOs need to be technical, without apology, just as chief medical officers need not apologize for their grounding in medicine. CIOs don't necessarily need a degree in computer science or engineering, but they must have experience managing and developing applications, systems, projects and architectures.

There are exceptions to this rule: the HR or customer service exec who steps in and runs a first-class IT organization. But those execs are usually placed in the CIO position to fix a dysfunctional organization, institute cost discipline, bring silos together or instill a customer focus. And then they're rotated out. Rarely does the nontechnical CIO thrive in that position long term.

But that doesn't mean CIOs should rest on their technical laurels either. While Poole noted that other chiefs (HR, marketing, finance, etc.) "are generally quite secure in their seat in the executive boardroom" without feeling pressure to move outside their core competencies, CIOs sit in a different place. Because they're building systems for sales, marketing, logistics and other departments, CIOs must understand those areas far better than the average exec. And don't think for a minute that other executives aren't called on to expand their expertise, and even move into positions outside of their core areas.

Consider the CFO position. In a 2005 report titled "The Activist CFO," CFO Research Services and Booz Allen Hamilton urged chief financial officers "to take on an expanded and increasingly activist role within their companies ... not just supporting the business with information and analysis, but also ensuring that the entire enterprise delivers on its commitments." The study went on to say that while the activist CFO "may sound a lot like a CEO, an overall leader of the enterprise and a super-line manager," he or she must remain committed to the core job: finance.

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Likewise, we're not asking "activist CIOs" to become superheroes, but we're urging them to get more experience in operational and customer-facing roles. Whether that experience requires formal stints in sales or procurement or manufacturing or customer service -- or just a more hands-on relationship with the people running those areas -- depends on the organization and executive.

When I recently asked one leading CIO (who came up through the technical ranks) what he's looking for in a successor, he immediately talked about breadth of experience, and not just in IT. "I would personally like to see more rotations through business roles than we have managed to date," he said. That's not because he has an inferiority complex about the importance of technical acumen. It's because he understands that when your position is intertwined with so many lines of business, it's essential to truly understand their processes, challenges and opportunities.

In the end, I don't think Poole's view is all that different from mine. "CIOs have a unique position because of their influence on information and business processes," he wrote. "Any CIO who only manages IT operations is clearly not contributing sufficiently at a C level. This is no different from the CFO who is really just an accountant or the [chief human resources officer] who is merely a recruiter."

Poole continued: "A good CIO knows how to leverage IT to enable the business in a manner that is evident to the executive team. The principle is the same for all C-level executives. CIOs simply need to take their seat at the C-level table."

About the Author(s)

Rob Preston

VP & Editor in Chief, InformationWeek

Rob Preston currently serves as VP and editor in chief of InformationWeek, where he oversees the editorial content and direction of its various website, digital magazine, Webcast, live and virtual event, and other products. Rob has 25 years of experience in high-tech publishing and media, during which time he has been a senior-level editor at CommunicationsWeek, CommunicationsWeek International, InternetWeek, and Network Computing. Rob has a B.A. in journalism from St. Bonaventure University and an M.A. in economics from Binghamton University.

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