CIOs Don't Need to Be Business Leaders

Given the complexity of today's applications, it's folly to suggest that the future role of the CIO is less technical and more businesslike, columnist Bernard Golden writes. If anything, it's the opposite -- the business side of the enterprise should embrace technology.

By Bernard Golden
Fri, May 18, 2012

CIO — It seems like every week I come across an article stating that being a CIO means thinking more like a business person and less like an engineer. Often I see articles that say that CIOs need to talk the language of business, not technology. Occasionally I'll see one that says that CIOs need to be business leaders and stop focusing on technology.

I have seen pieces asserting that future heads of IT will be from disciplines such as marketing or finance, since technology really isn't that important anymore. I've even seen analyses that say that CIOs no longer need to manage technically capable organizations because infrastructure is being offloaded to outsourcers and on-premise applications are being displaced by SaaS applications.

The implication of all these viewpoints is that technology qua technology is no longer significant and that, overall, it's so standardized and commoditized that it can be treated like any other area of the business. In fact, it can be managed by someone with no technical background at all.

The general rap against technical IT executives is that they talk about technology too much and fail to communicate with CEOs in so-called "business terms." The thinking is that CIOs fail to use the language of business and thereby bore—or, worse, alienate—CEOs, with the result that CIOs are dismissed from the inner ranks of corporations.

If only CIOs could learn to communicate in business terms, the argument goes, then they would be accepted into the inner circle, embraced by CEOs no longer discomfited by technical jargon.

Notion of CIO as Business Leader Just Plain Wrong

The shorthand version of this argument is the CIO needs to be a business leader, not a technologist. The implication is clear: The CIO leaves the technical details to others and focuses on the big picture.

There's only one thing wrong with this perspective. It's wrong. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

Technical skills in IT management are important today like never before—and that fact is becoming increasingly evident. In the future, CIOs will need deep technical skills. A CIO with even average technical skills will be not only inadequate for his or her job, he or she will represent a danger to the overall health of the company.

Frankly, even on its surface, this argument of "CIO as business leader" doesn't make sense. Marketing, for example, is undergoing radical transformation as it shifts to online and digital. Today sophisticated analysis of click patterns, A/B testing, big data analytics and so on are a core marketing competence. Do you think that CEOs want a head of marketing who doesn't know the details of how these kind of marketing tools operate? That marketing is run by someone who can use the language of business, even though he or she doesn't really understand the details of what is done in the marketing programs? Of course not.

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