by Bernard Golden

CIOs Don’t Need to Be Business Leaders

May 18, 20127 mins
CIOCloud ComputingIT Strategy

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.

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.

IT, too, is becoming increasingly complex. Ten years ago, a company’s website was primarily a display application designed to deliver static content. Today, a website is a transaction and collaboration application that supports far higher workloads. Websites commonly integrate external services that deliver content or data that is mixed with a company’s own data to present a customized view to individual users. The application may expose APIs to allow other organizations to integrate it with their applications, and those same APIs may be used to support a mobile website. Finally, the site probably experiences high variability of load throughout the year as seasonal events or specific business initiatives drive large volumes of traffic.

Application performance management depends on an exquisite tuning of a multitude of elements, any of which can affect response time and each of which must be monitored to assess an app’s ongoing health. To be sure, one can expect the application to constantly change as new business arrangements, partnerships, or corporate events such as mergers or acquisitions require functionality changes.

The complexities of these applications is of an order of magnitude higher than those of a decade ago. For a discussion of what these applications look like from an enterprise architecture perspective, read this post by friend and colleague James Urquhart and just try to come away thinking that this highly complex, dynamic, constantly evolving environment can be managed by someone without technology chops.

You Can’t Discuss Tech Without Knowing Tech

Here’s the thing: Complex as they are, these new applications are critical to the success of the overall business. The website of 2000 was important, but if it wasn’t operating properly, the company could still function. If today’s Web-enabled application isn’t available, business grinds to a halt. This reflects how, over time, these applications have insinuated themselves into the core functionality of the company—and made their successful operation critical to the operation of the business.

Now, do you think a CIO can get by without understanding the key elements of these type of applications? Without recognizing the weak aspects of the application where failure or performance bottlenecks can ruin successful user engagement with the application?

The counter argument to this perspective is that the technology is too complex and covers too many areas for any individual to comprehend it all in detail, let alone a CIO with so many other responsibilities.

That is true. However, it’s critical that the CIO possess a sufficiently deep technical background to feel comfortable discussing current technology matters. Someone whose technology familiarity stopped in 1986, or whose background is in finance, cannot function in a role of head of information technology.

Believe me, there is a world of difference between someone who understands technology—and as a result has to weigh alternatives and disputes among different groups involved in a technology discussion—and someone who doesn’t really have any technology background and arbitrates by non-technical criteria. The difference between them is the difference between an organization that gets things right on technology—or, when it gets things wrong, can recognize the issue and quickly correct it—and one that makes poor decisions that result in fragile, constrained applications.

In Today’s Economy, CEOs Obligated to Know Tech

Frankly, that issue of talking to the CEO in business language with which he or she is comfortable is a red herring. The fact is, businesses today are technology businesses. Information technology is core to what they do. Something so critical to a company’s success imposes an obligation on a CEO to comprehend it. After all, do you think the CEO of GM refuses to engage with the head of manufacturing on supply chain issues even though it’s a highly technical subject? Why, then, is it OK for a CEO to deflect an IT discussion because it’s highly technical?

Now that I think about it, it might be time to turn the whole argument on its head. The statement shouldn’t be that CIOs aren’t businesslike enough. It’s that too many of today’s CEOs are insufficiently technical.

Bernard Golden is CEO of consulting firm HyperStratus, which specializes in virtualization, cloud computing and related issues. He is also the author of “Virtualization for Dummies,” the best-selling book on virtualization to date. Most recently namd him one of the Top 10 Cloud Influencers and Thought Leaders. Follow Bernard Golden on Twitter @bernardgolden.

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