CEOs don’t need to be IT literate and neither do CIOs

An interesting article in The Financial Times’ Connected Business supplement on 18 October discussed the extent to which CEOs should be IT literate. It concluded that for CEOs, knowing the destination is more important than how to drive the car. The same is true for the CIO.

The role of the CIO is to make sure that the business needs for management information systems are captured and delivered in an economic and innovative manner using the market place, global expertise and delivery models.

Requirements management, and strategic and options analysis are far more critical skills to have than being a technological wizard. The CIO needs to be able to focus on the business’s requirements and define those requirements in IT terms, validating, measuring and counter-measuring to ensure delivery.

The explosion of cloud and utility-type services is a good example of this: the CIO will have no technical decisions to make here. Instead, the skill is to match the needs of the business to the SaaS offerings in the market place.

There will be trade-offs in terms of the amount of control that companies will have, and CIOs will need to effectively communicate these trade-offs to the business. This is not a technological skill, but a requirements analysis; strategic agility, risk management and stakeholder value based skill. It’s also a skill that requires CIO’s to depart from their traditional thought processes, behaviours and practices.

It sounds straightforward, but frequently CIOs from an IT background arrive in the role with a set of biases. They slice the IT cake into different segments and award them to different suppliers with whom they may have had a previous relationship or technical engagement. It is no wonder that the roster of IT providers fail to collaborate and that business objectives are slowed and limited to the ‘in the box’ thinking that these biases create.

An organisation’s view of IT will shape how it uses IT. Currently, for a company to fully embrace technology’s transforming potential, it needs an IT enlightened CEO as well as a technology savvy CIO. But a close partnership between the company and its IT supplier to jointly steer ambitions, with a higher margin or share of the gains, will elevate and accelerate those ambitions and reduce the risks on the business.

Frequently, the perceived and real risks to an organisation are so great that IT anxiousness leads to paralysis. Technology is now moving so fast that finding absolutes and creating reliable data points is impossible, especially when multiplied by the wide variance in CIO capabilities, backgrounds and experiences.

So whilst the industry rumour mill and fear factory is a distraction, CIOs need to focus on their business’s objectives, how to achieve them, and the deployment of strategic analysis tools and risk management to identify the best business options with the highest probability outcomes. To do this they need to be brave.

The greatest danger we face as an industry is the commodity based mentality driven by the economic downturn globally that drives business to look for every last penny. The biggest winners over the next few years will be the CIOs focused on business goals and outcomes; not afraid to develop the right strategic alliances and investments that allow them to pioneer new ways of delivering value.

Barry Osbiston is Head of Service Delivery for T-Systems in the UK. T-Systems is the corporate customer arm of Deutsche Telekom. Barry is passionate about ensuring that technology enables and empowers business. In his 25 years of working in the information systems and information technology fields, he has driven major changes across numerous outsource organisations, from both operational and service management roles. One of his most significant posts whilst working for a major outsource organisation was Director of Service for the NHS, as well as for other Public Sector organisations.