by Abbie Lundberg

The Most Critical Attribute of a CIO

Nov 20, 20073 mins
IT Leadership

As the debate over the CIO role rages on, we wonder which is the most critical skill set: business, technology or, as some argue, the ability to detect bullshit?

The debate about the best background for CIOs isn’t new. It’s been going on since the mid ‘90s, when Johnson & Johnson first appointed a CIO from “the business,” without hands-on IT experience. The argument goes something like this: Technology is becoming an increasingly integral part of business; ergo, CIOs have to be business strategists. So far so good. But then some people continue the argument to say that because business knowledge and ability is so important, technology knowledge isn’t. False!

Whether a CIO also needs to be a technologist depends on a couple of things.

First is the size of your company. At a small business, the top IT person may be the only IT person, or one of just a few. You gotta know how to make the stuff work. That’s not really what we’re talking about.

The arguments start up when we talk about larger organizations. Here there are two issues: how complex the organization and its technology underpinnings are, and more to the heart of the matter, how integral technology is to the company’s strategic operations. The more a business can gain competitive advantage from strategic IT, the more important it is that the CIO really understand technology. Clearly this will be the case for more and more organizations as technology-enabled business continues to evolve.

Google CIO Douglas Merrill put himself on this side of the argument in my interview with him a few months ago. “During the next 10 to 15 years,” Merrill said, “you’ll find increased technical focus at the tops of IT organizations and at the tops of companies.” As traditional boundaries between organizations shift and dissolve, and as consumer apps increasingly find their way into the enterprise, “suddenly, an understanding of the nature of the technical relationships between organizations are all embodied in [the company’s] product. So you’ll see a much higher degree of technical focus in the CIO and a higher understanding of technology in business across the C suite.”

Forrester’s Bobby Cameron picks up the other side of the debate. He believes that as information technology morphs into business technology (see my last post), CIOs will and should have non-IT backgrounds. That’s because while “they’ll generate a lot of work for IT, they won’t be doing IT,” he said.

Cameron believes that non-IT CIOs can be just as successful as CIOs who understand both business and technology as long as they have a good “bullshit meter.” They need to be a “logical, structured thinker with the ability to ask good questions” – whether of vendors or the technical staff.

The problem is, if the CIO doesn’t really understand technology, then the CEO’s going to have to have a pretty good bullshit meter too.

So what do you think? Can you be a truly great CIO without a pretty deep understanding of technology? Does the merging of business and technology make technology knowledge more or less valuable to the individual leading strategic IT?