The CIO Skill Set: Is IT A Horizontal Expertise?

Do the skills of a CIO translate over various industries? Or should technology people look to specialize in certain vertical areas to increase their effectiveness?

John Soat, Contributor

February 5, 2008

3 Min Read

Do the skills of a CIO translate over various industries? Or should technology people look to specialize in certain vertical areas to increase their effectiveness?The reason I ask is because of a news item I noticed in the industry (my industry) trade magazine Editor & Publisher. The news item reported that the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has appointed a gentleman by the name of Mark Beck as its new VP and CIO. Beck will report to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's senior VP of operations Bob Eickhoff, according to the item.

The news story said this about Beck:

For the past five years Beck has served as executive vice president and chief information officer of Unisource Worldwide, Inc., a $6 billion distributor of paper, packaging and sanitary supplies, based in Norcross, Ga. Before that, he held a number of senior IT roles at Georgia-Pacific, including VP/information technology and chief information officer for G-P's Unisource operations, director of information resources for IT strategy and planning, and director of information resources for containerboard.

Now, far be it from me to disparage Mr. Beck's credentials or capabilities. His resumé is very impressive and I'm sure he's been an effective technology and business leader. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution would not have hired him otherwise.

I'm just wondering if Mr. Beck is really prepared to become the technology leader of an organization like the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, so different from the areas he's worked in up till now? There's no industry under more pressure from rapidly changing technology, shifting market forces and business models, and the evolving demands of customers, than media -- newspapers and magazines in particular. From Mr. Beck's background, it looks like he has considerable expertise in printing and packaging. But these days, printing is not media, even when it comes to newspapers.

That's why I'm wondering if IT skills actually do transfer across vertical industries. That may have been the case in the past. Indeed, it may account for the reputation of CIOs as modern day, executive-level Paladins: Have Tech Skills -- Will Travel.

But today, when information technology is so integral to the success of every aspect of a particular industry's business model -- product development, marketing, supply chain, fulfillment, customer interaction -- and the CIO is expected to play a role in most, if not all, of those areas, at least at a strategic level, can that person be effective if he or she is not well versed, indeed expert, in the dynamics of that particular industry?

I'm thinking of this largely in terms of students and IT workers looking to follow a career path to the CIO level. Would it be better for those people to specialize in one vertical industry and learn both the technology and business forces creating the most impact there? Or is technology expertise the first order of business, making for a transferable set of skills well suited to today's fluid (a.k.a. cutthroat) job market?

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