by Bob Lewis

The case against the ‘business-savvy CIO’

Sep 20, 2018
CareersCIOIT Leadership

Being business-savvy isn’t a radical recommendation. It’s clichéd. These days, tech know-how and business smarts are inseparable when it comes to transformational CIOs.

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Credit: Getty Images

Surely you saw the article. It’s the one that says CIOs should be business people, not technical people.

I’m pretty sure it’s the same article, printed over and over again with minor variations, rephrasings, changes of emphasis, and different bylines since I first read it in 1995, maybe earlier.

It’s time to put a stop to the reappearances. In case its absurdity isn’t obvious, replace the “I” with any other capitalized executive middle letter and see where the logic takes you: CFOs should, according to this logic, be business people, not financial people; COOs should be business people, not operations people; CMOs should be business people whose knowledge of marketing is optional.

And now we have CDOs (chief digital officers). By the same logic they, presumably, should be business people and not digital people, assuming, that is, that “digital people” means experts in digital stuff and not cyborgs or androids.

The problem here is the popular pastime of creating false dichotomies so as to force people to choose one of two equally stupid alternatives. CIOs no more need to lack technical expertise in their pursuit of business expertise than they need to eschew business expertise because they need to understand information technology.

Quite the opposite, as proven by a syllogism. Its major premise: Executives are supposed to lead. Its minor premise is the correct definition of leadership — if people are following then you’re leading; otherwise you’re not (found in my book Leading IT: (Still) the Toughest Job in the World).

Its conclusion: Employees won’t willingly follow someone who’s entirely ignorant of the business function for which they’re supposed to set direction, make intelligent decisions, and make sure the best and most qualified talent populates their domain.

Instead of falling for the false dichotomy, CIOs should assess the situation from the perspective of the “management compass” (same reference): Effective CIOs, and, for that matter, all other leaders and managers, have to develop and maintain effective relationships in four directions: North, to the CEO; east, to their peers throughout the organization; south, to everyone who, directly or indirectly reports to them; and west, to everyone who makes use of the products and services their organization provides to the organization.

  • Facing north, CIOs must be adept at translating technological change into new business capabilities that have clear strategic implications. They must also be articulate in explaining such arcane issues as the importance of investing in technical architecture, even though these investments don’t provide a clear and immediate tangible and measureable return.
  • Facing east, CIOs must be ready to discuss technology-driven opportunities for each peer’s area of responsibility, whether the CIO is the one who spotted it or one of the CIO’s increasingly technically literate peers. At the same time the CIO has to work with peers so as to corral their so-called “shadow IT” without strangling it, recognizing that strangling it is neither possible nor desirable, while ignoring it too easily results in chaos.
  • Facing south, it’s up to the CIO to set direction, persuade everyone in the organization that the direction is credible, and inspire them all to buy into it and provide leadership of their own to help make it happen.
  • As for the Wild West, CIOs need to recognize that the old “Wite-Out® on the screen” days of ignorant end-users is long gone. They need to plan for and support people who play World of Warcraft for fun, stay in touch with friends on Instagram, and exchange ideas with total strangers on Reddit. People who have no patience with opaque user interfaces, lousy performance, and system outages and who know their expectations are realistic because of what they experience when corporate IT isn’t in the loop.

The CIO’s world has changed since the days when being competent with business concepts was considered radical, and the executive suite scrutinized all requests for information technology to make sure they had a proper return on investment.

Any company that still does this will be left behind in the dust, outpaced and outperformed by those that recognize the central business transformation that’s dominated the past ten years and has been graced with the label “digital”:

What it means: Information technology is no longer scrutinized and evaluated.

It’s assumed. CIOs are now tasked with supporting companies that assume it.