CIOs, Don't Let Lack of Business Skills Be Your Kryptonite

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If asked to compare their careers to a comic strip, many people invariably choose "Dilbert," in which the characters are seen toiling in cubicles and constantly trying to circumvent a bureaucratic and borderline bizarre office culture to get their work done.


But perhaps "Superman" would be a better fit for the CIO, specifically issues featuring Bizarro World, the planet that offers a skewed version of reality. Ugly is beautiful. Stupid is smart. And CIOs don't know much about technology.


Whoa! It's logical for executives to possess a solid background and deep knowledge in areas they are tasked with leading. Many, if not most, CFOs have accounting backgrounds. CIOs traditionally came up from the IT ranks. Yet there seems to be a group of folks who think IT experience is not only unnecessary but may actually prevent CIOs from doing an effective job.


Just a few weeks ago, I wrote about the idea of splitting the existing CIO role into two positions, one to handle the "technical stuff" and the other responsible for business strategy. It seemingly goes back to the whole "CIOs Are From Venus, CEOs Are From Mars" mentality that technology types can't relate to the broader business, no matter how hard they try. To continue this line of thinking, many business people "get" technology now. They use BlackBerries, right?


Chris Curran has an interesting take on the non-technical CIO at CIO Dashboard. He mentions attending a presentation from the CIO of a Fortune 500 company who came from a business, rather than an IT, background. Curran found her talk pretty compelling. But he was bothered by the fact that she still referred to the IT organization as "them" after two years on the job. Yikes.


Breaking it down, Curran offers a chart showing the strengths that CIOs with business experience only and CIOs with IT experience bring to five key functions: strategic use of IT, business alignment, planning, execution and operations and management. It's a great chart. In looking at it, what really strikes me is that many of these questions over the CIO role could be avoided in the first place if universities incorporated the business principles mentioned by Curran into their technology curriculums, including entry-level classes.


Curran comes out in favor of CIOs with technology backgrounds. He writes:


I would argue that if the CIO participates as a full member of the executive team, then the business perspective is represented by all of the functional and business heads and the CIO brings the unique IT perspective. If an executive team has a CIO with only strong business perspective, it is incomplete.


But. And as Pee Herman would say, it's a big but. Curran includes several business-oriented skills on his list of CIO skillset priorities. Among them: leadership ability, experience leading change initiatives and the ability to understand how projects and operations impact corporate financials.