Why CIOs Are Ideally Positioned to Be the Next CEOs

    While today’s CEOs typically don’t understand technology and where it’s heading, tomorrow’s CEOs will need to master how technology can be used strategically to accomplish business differentiation. And CIOs, who are better equipped to understand the “art of the possible,” are ideally positioned to do that.

    That’s the assessment of Kevin Niblock, president and COO of Software AG North America. In an interview earlier this week, Niblock explained where he’s coming from:

    It’s interesting from my perspective, in that I still see us helping companies understand how to use their architecture strategically to accomplish business differentiation. Understanding that is critical to being able to build the technologies and the differentiation that companies are going to need in the future, and so I do see that the CIO is perfectly positioned for that. But I’ll also say that with a caveat: I don’t know what percentage it is, but I do feel that there’s a large percentage of CIOs who have a seat at the table now, and they understand the business and where the business is going, and do a really good job of blending their understanding of technology and creating creative solutions for how to use it to solve business problems. But then there’s the percentage that are still kind of the “keep the lights on” CIO that’s not overly strategic, and might be reporting under a CFO or something where they’re viewed more as an expense vs. a strategic part of the business. A lot of those CIOs were the guys that got SAP or Oracle deployed, or have the certain skill set to manage the IT structure, but aren’t really viewed as strategic differentiators.

    I put Niblock on the spot a bit by asking him if CIOs are better equipped to assume the CEO role than COOs are. Niblock, a COO himself, admirably took the question in stride:

    Well, I think they’re better equipped to understand the art of the possible, because it seems like most of the strategic differentiation in the future is going to be technology-driven, whether it’s embedded technology in their own products or how to use technology to communicate better in their own customer base, or even their own employees. Now, these are my humble opinions, so bear with me, but I feel like the ERP world did so well from a software perspective because CEOs typically have business degrees. Generally — and I’m grossly generalizing — they understood order to cash, they understood financials, they understood the value of tying financials and MRP together and the whole kind of panacea that ERP created, because they had business degrees. I think typically, CEOs don’t understand technology, and they don’t understand where technology is going and how instrumental it’s going to be to use data in motion, and how to leverage the Big Data concepts of understanding data at rest, and the patterns in the data, and how to use it in the future. Those are going to be the key skill sets that the next CEOs will need. I don’t know where the up-and-coming CEOs get that if it’s not having a [background in IT]. I haven’t been looking at any MBA programs in a while, so I don’t know how many of them have a technology bent to them. But it seems pretty clear to me that technology is going to be the differentiator for these companies, if you just look at the number of Fortune 1000 companies that dropped off the list in the last few years. It’s a challenging time.

    According to his LinkedIn profile, in his position as president and COO of Software AG North America, Niblock is responsible for “accelerating adoption of the world’s first Digital Business Platform.” But the fact is, his degree is in economics and business, and he was a sales guy at Parametric Technology and TIBCO for 20 years before joining Software AG last year. So based on his own argument, he wouldn’t be the best-equipped guy to be responsible for accelerating adoption of the world’s first digital business platform. When I raised that point, Niblock said it was fair to go there:

    To be honest with you, before I got to TIBCO close to 10 years ago now, I don’t think I would have been very well equipped. I would have really understood the sales and marketing and operational side, but I wouldn’t have understood technology enough because I was focused mostly on the mechanical engineering side of things. Being at TIBCO and Software AG has really been a massive education for me, because I kind of started from scratch and I’m now 10 years into seeing how this type of technology affects companies. I’m kind of in the unique position where I get to see this in hundreds of accounts and hundreds of CIO meetings and conversations at my level, and I’d like to think that that’s probably the best business school learnings you could ever have. But that’s because I’m in the software field, and I get to understand this at all these hundreds of CIO meetings, whereas I don’t think the CIOs have enough opportunities to learn as much or as fast as I did.

    A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.

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