Earlier this month I addressed the question of whether a CIO should be a generalist or a specialist. Though not all of the attendees at the IT Business Edge-sponsored Midmarket CIO Forum agreed with him, Mike Vizard made a pretty compelling case that CIOs should be specialists in the vertical industry in which they are employed. He said:
People think you can run IT at a fruit company and then run IT at a chemical company. I'd argue that's insane. That's why business people begin to see IT as a utility. When I talk to CIOs, many of them have more loyalty to IT than to the industry they are working in. I think you add more value if you become a specialist. That's how you make IT integral to the business.
I got some similar thoughts from Vince Kellen, CIO of the University of Kentucky, when I interviewed him about his job. He told me:
Once you're a CIO in a vertical, it's hard to leave that vertical. Your value to the vertical is very important, especially if you're good at the business stuff. You know so much about your industry, you'll be valuable to competitors, too. At the highest levels of executive leadership, you've got to be deeply concerned about your industry, the industry your company works in.
Where business skills are concerned, it makes sense to become a specialist. You'll add more value to your company if your understand the ins and outs and specific quirks of its vertical industry. A CIO's technical skills are another matter, as Gene De Libero writes on the CIO Essentials blog.
He uses the example of management author Peter Drucker, who made it a point to educate himself on a wide variety of topics. This has been my experience as a journalist, since I've covered lots of different topics over the years. As I sometimes tell interviewees who turn the tables and ask me about my background, "I know a little about a lot of things rather than a lot about a few things."
This not only gave Drucker a broader base of knowledge, it "also forced him to be more open to disciplines, methodologies and approaches," writes De Libero. It's more important now than ever for CIOs because of the accelerating pace of technological change. As new technical approaches emerge, it's important to evaluate them instead of simply relying on what has worked well in the past. There's no place for that kind of technology tunnel vision in today's fast-changing environment.
CIOs should also be careful not to overload their staffs with tech specialists, writes De Libero in another post. De Libero started thinking about it when a nephew who is a software developer told him he worked on a team in which no single developer knew the product stack from top to bottom. Instead, the team was staffed with specialists, each responsible for a specific job and sub-product. But "no one had a 35,000-foot view of the entire product line, from a code perspective," he writes
I think the slumping economy has exacerbated this tendency to hire tech specialists, as I wrote in December. Employers are looking to add high-impact skills at predictable costs, which means they are not only hiring more IT specialists, but adding them to their staffs by other means, including employing third-party contractors, going offshore or purchasing managed services. With these kinds of blended staffs, it becomes even more important to employ generalists because, as De Libero writes, they add value by filling skills gaps created when more specialized team members remain focused on a narrow set of tasks.
Most IT training focuses on creating specialists, not generalists. But I think CIOs may be able to create generalists by rotating staff through different roles or at least letting them occasionally shadow coworkers. That's an idea mentioned in my recent post on business intelligence training.
One of the ideas mentioned by Vizard during his Midmarket CIO Forum presentation was hosting events during which members of the IT team demonstrate different technologies for business users, to get them thinking about possible use cases. It occurs to me the same could be done to help educate IT staffers about different technologies.