CIOs should not be technical

past_present_future_signsThe days of the CIO being the most senior technologist in their organisation with time served working their way up through the IT department are numbered. In fact, having a technical background or at least one that is clearly evident in how you speak, behave or approach issues is likely to be a disadvantage in the future.

The way organisations are using technology has changed. Disruptive technologies such as cloud, social and mobile have made technology far more accessible to non-technical functions. The supposed challengers to the CIO role, be it the CMO, CDO or even the CFO, are demonstrating that you do not need to be technical to successfully apply technology to enable business capabilities.

When CEOs and other C-level executives are looking for candidates to drive technology-enabled business transformation, they do not want someone who is steeped in servers, switches, coding and interfaces; they want someone who understands the business, its markets and customers and who can apply technology to create competitive advantage. This is why CIOs who have spent most or all of their careers in IT are being overlooked for transformational roles and find it hard to progress beyond the CIO role; their technical background is a weakness; not a strength.

Forbes recently ran a series of articles on the CIO-plus role, about CIOs that have taken on other duties in addition to running IT, and are currently running a follow-up series  titled Beyond CIO featuring CIOs that have moved up to more senior roles. What most, if not all, of the CIOs and ex-CIOs featured in the Forbes articles had in common was time spent outside of IT whilst a number of them had actually started their careers in non-technology roles and moved into IT as a senior manager.

The fact that Forbes are featuring CIOs that have taken on additional duties or who have moved up to more senior roles demonstrates that it is still fairly unusual for this to happen. And this will continue to be the case while most CIO roles are filled by people with a mainly technical background and little experience outside IT.

Comments

  1. I completely agree with the sentiment of your post, Ian. I’ve expressed through my own blog posts, researched through hundreds of conversations with CIOs and would-be future business leaders, that the key to achieving true success lies in emotional intelligence and much broader skill-set than IT.
    However, in looking at ‘Beyond the CIO’ are we at risk of measuring something slightly different than a successful CIO?
    “What most, if not all, of the CIOs and ex-CIOs featured in the Forbes articles had in common was time spent outside of IT whilst a number of them had actually started their careers in non-technology”. Could it not be argued therefore that, as these people are going on to roles ‘beyond’ the CIO, that they’re very good business people and would succeed regardless of whether or not they spent time as an IT leader.
    I believe that a ‘successful CIO’ is one who make the CIO ROLE a success, in whatever context that might be (represented at board, wins trust of the CEO/business, brings IT closer to the customer, etc, etc). This person – as you describe – is not a “techie”, has a broader skill-set, “understands the business, its markets and customers and who can apply technology to create competitive advantage”.

    • Hi Alec,

      Thanks for the comment.

      The references to ‘CIO-plus’ and ‘Beyond CIO’ are intended primarily to reinforce the main point, which is very much in line with your view, i.e. that a “techie” is less likely to make a success of the CIO role. And it’s as a result of them not making a success of the CIO role that they will not be offered opportunities in addition to or beyond the CIO role.

      Ian

  2. I am not sure that I completely agree, though do agree that a great sys admin may not have all the skills needed to get the most from technology for an organisation! I think that having a grasp of technology is essential to be able to make connections between what is being said in the advertising blurb about a particular technology and how it could benefit an organisation and what the consequences would be. I think the fundamental point is one of the scale of knowledge required, by which I mean that the CIO may not need to know how to declare their variables in Java, but must be able to understand the benefit and value of the concept of ‘write once, run anywhere’ and connect this to its implications on infrastructure through to leveraging competitive advantage. I also think there could be a challenge for the non-technical individual to build credibility to lead when it is known they are ‘non-technical’.

    • Hi James,

      Thanks for the comment.

      I agree that the CIO needs to have a solid understanding of technology. But that understanding doesn’t have to come from having worked their way up through the IT department or by having a technial qualification or training. This may have been the case 5-10 years ago but as technology has evolved so must the role of the CIO and IT departments.

      In my experience the credibility of the CIO is determined more by their ability to lead, build teams, communicate, set the overall vision and direction, etc. Having a good understanding of technology and principles such as ‘write once, run anywhere’ enables the CIO to ask the right questions. But if they’ve built the right team and are a good leader their own credibility is unlikely to be in doubt.

      Ian

Trackbacks

  1. […] can read the rest of this post on The CIO Leader, my site for business-focused technology […]

  2. […] last article for The CIO Leader, CIOs should not be technical, prompted quite a lot of reaction across this site, LinkedIn and Twitter. The basic premise was […]

  3. […] last article for The CIO Leader, CIOs should not be technical, prompted quite a lot of reaction across this site, LinkedIn and Twitter. The basic premise was […]

  4. […] by Ian Cox – currently CIO Sony and CIO Leader […]

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