by Rick Swanborg

CIOs Need a New Generation of Business Problem-Solvers

Sep 28, 20113 mins

Your company’s capacity for innovative, cost-effective IT depends on up-and-coming leaders who understand people, processes and technology

Today’s CIOs are being challenged by senior business executives to provide quicker technology innovation while still ensuring cost-effective IT services. As a result, some companies are creating positions for hybrid IT professionals who can take leadership roles in devising and executing technology-enabled business ideas.

Let’s call these hybrid IT professionals Business Solution Designers (BSD). This next generation of IT leaders have these qualities in common:

They’re focused on business capabilities. And they’re not stuck on functional requirements. “Future IT leadership will be equally concerned about people, process and technology, not just technology, as has been our tendency in the past,” says Alistair Jacques, CIO of UnitedHealth Group’s Medicare and Retirement Division. BSDs must facilitate conversations about what the company needs, rather than recording what business leaders think they want.

They know technology’s limits. The belief that IT could work miracles killed business re-engineering 15 years ago. BSDs must have a solid grasp of how a company’s legacy systems, applications architecture and Web environments limit or enable business capabilities.

They have top-notch negotiating skills. BSDs must be able to help business leaders make realistic decisions about which projects to pursue and what resources to use to execute them. Negotiating good business value while minimizing project scope requires skill at making trade-offs. Also, as many basic IT services are outsourced, BSDs have to negotiate winning solutions with IT providers.

They’re curious. CIOs need IT leaders who can see beyond the current system implementation, says George Ball, an IT fellow at Raytheon. A passion for learning and curiosity about the future are essential. An innovator’s mind-set doesn’t hurt. “Think of people like Edison and Jobs,” says Ball.

How to Mold Innovative IT Leaders

Demand for people with these skills far outstrips supply, so CIOs must get creative. One option is to give IT training to qualified business professionals.

You first have to identify managers who have a passion for business systems and confirm that they have good logical—or even engineering—skills that you can build on with IT coursework. This may be easier than convincing technology professionals to expand their skills, because they may find it difficult to acquire the necessary communication and negotiation expertise.

Another option is to hire business students with minors in management information systems who have attended schools with a strong IT faculty in their business school. Getting involved with funding internships and starting leadership programs will give CIOs the opportunity to get the best students.

Then it’s up to you to keep this next generation of IT leaders motivated—and helping your company innovate.

Rick Swanborg is president of ICEX and a professor at Boston University. Read more about innovative IT practices at