Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The CIO - Technology-oriented Businessman or Business-oriented Technologist?

Recently, a question was asked:  should a CIO have a technology background?

This, of course, sparked an intense yet cordial and respectful debate on what type of CIO is the most effective.   Some argued that having a technology background was essential because - "duh!" - the CIO is managing technology.  Others argued that technology means nothing without it being surgically delivered to meet one or more business initiatives.  Therefore, they continued, the technology knowledge by itself isn't as useful as an in-depth understanding of how the business operates so that it can most effectively make use of technology to further its goals.

Let me ask this question of you:  does the paintbrush or the painter wielding the paintbrush actually paint a room?

I'm being disingenuous of course because the question belies my bias toward the latter, but I cannot deny that the second argument above resonates more greatly with me than the first.  I am reminded, in fact, of a discussion that I had recently on career movement with a very well respected professional acquaintance of mine, Ron Collier.  The discussion hinged on whether it made more sense to get a wide variety of experience in sales, marketing, R&D, etc. before venturing into management or not.

Ron's argument was that while this was a sensible approach, implementing it in reality would take far longer than was reasonably possible.  Instead, he countered, it made more sense to get into management first and hire people to work for you who were subject matter experts in the area you worked in (e.g. sales, marketing, R&D, etc.).  You'd learn from them the ins-and-outs of the business unit while continuing to build credibility as a manager who adds value to the business.

This hearkens to a statement I postulated in my previous series:

The purpose of each line of business is to design and implement a set of initiatives that do one thing:  make the company money.

Having said that, being a subject matter expert in anything that does not directly relate to making money isn't as useful as someone who is a subject matter expert in nothing but does know how to impact the business' ability to make money.  This brings us back to the initial question:  should a CIO be an expert in the business while knowing something about technology (and, arguably, more than his peers on the Executive Management Team)?  Or should a CIO be an expert in technology while knowing something about the business?

I think the answer is obvious.

A few weeks ago, I had a meeting with a CIO of a healthcare provider who was recently promoted into that position from his previous responsibility as the manager of the Infrastructure Operations group.  I came prepared to learn about his 12-18 month going forward strategy, only to find that he wanted to discuss specific features and functionality in two solutions that he was considering.

How would you have approached this meeting?  My personal opinion (and the way I executed) is to establish credibility in order to earn the right to speak later on higher level topics (read: IT strategy).  This meant addressing his questions even though I did not have the answers on hand by finding out the correct answers and conveying them to him in a timely fashion.  And although I haven't yet had the follow-up meeting with him, I certainly intend on helping him come to the conclusion (all by himself, of course) that developing a viable long term strategy will yield greater benefits to his division and him personally than any single solution could.

Do you agree or disagree?  Leave a comment to discuss.

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