How much tech a CIO needs to know?

The CIO has to Unlearn the ‘one mile depth, one inch wide' strategy. It also depends on how progressive the organization is. Nevertheless the consensus here is CIOs need to demonstrate a judicious blend of both tech and business

Circa 1980s: A bunch of people in a crammed basement room, with huge computers and unruly cable running through the floor. It’s the EDP or the MIS department of a large enterprise. No one really knows what happens inside this digital dungeon.

And Now in 2017: In a posh office, the same bunch of guys have graduated to a different league. They have well-appointed cabins and deal with state-of-the-art tech and part of the top management

The transformation is evident from the early 2000 and today CIOs are no longer relegated to the sidelines—rather they have taken the centerstage. But the yesteryears EDP and MIS are mostly manned by programmers and often developed in-house solutions—like payroll and some back-end processes. But often they are reactive solutions that made IT rigid and unable to scale and did not align well with business demands. This was the age where information siloes ruled.

And somewhere in the mid-1990s this seemingly placid tech department slowly changed and information became an asset and probably that was the enterprise IT’s tipping point—the MIS managers morphed into CIOs and in some instances, the finance/business heads took to managing the technology roles. Much has been written about the changing roles of the CIOs and summarizing that might be a cliché here and we will hence deep dive into a debatable topic: How much tech a CIO needs to know today?

Business Drives IT

We approached a handful of CIOs and posed them this question. Interestingly some shied away and some requested not to mention their names. And some are more vocal.

In one of the past interactions with Dataquest, Venkatesh Natarajan, VP-IT, Ashok Leyland told me, “ CIO in today’s context should possess a fine blend of knowledge cutting across: Business knowledge, functional expertise, and business process knowledge. Add to that, the knowledge of existing and emerging technologies and people management skills are vital.”

CIOs like Natarajan also agree that technology is becoming increasingly complex. Too much focus on understanding the technology will distract the CIO from focusing on areas like business, IT alignment and collaboration which are critical and a key competence expected from a CIO by the CEO and the business today. More than understanding the nuts and bolts of each technology, the CIO has to focus on assessing the relevance of these technologies to his organization and business and explore ways and means to introduce new technologies in the organization.

“The CIO has to unlearn the ‘one mile depth, one inch wide’ strategy and learn the ‘one inch depth, one mile wide’ strategy which will help the CIO to constantly look for scouting new technologies and cost-effective solutions in a world where new is replacing the old, be it technology or process,” adds Natarajan.

From Natarajan’s perspective, clearly, it becomes evident that the CIO has to be both a business and a person who has an aptitude for technology.

Leading CIOs believe that there are technology-driven organizations and technology-enabled organizations. For instance,  a technology driven organization will be totally dependent on technology- something like a eCom company. So, in this case, the CIO has to be a tech person and should have an in-depth understanding of technology because its a 24/7 online business. On the other side, if it is a vertical like manufacturing or something else, technology enables the business but not fully drives it, in that case, CIOs can have an acquired taste but good understanding of tech is must and without that CIOs cannot succeed.

Blurring of Lines

A sound tech background gives the CIOs an edge to navigate the IT policy decision, but having said that some of the other CIOs we spoke to say that in addition to that, what decides the outcome of an IT spend is the CIOs ability to mesh IT with business and be able to satisfy all the key stakeholders. As we know that IT today is not a singular decision of the CIO. Many stakeholders are involved—the CTO, CFO, CEO and the key SBU heads. Says a CIO who does wish to be quoted, it is like this: “A successful CIO should create bridges between the key departments and be able to create an IT infrastructure that can seamlessly talk to each other. It does not mean he/she needs to have a granular understanding of the solutions, but they need to opt in for the best-fit solution at the same time at the best possible cost. The employees need state-of-the-art tech but the CFO wants better RoI. So from my perspective, I always aim for lesser TCO and greater RoI and a solution that’s sustainable in the long run.”

So a CIO needs a blended IT strategy. He needs to create a perfect balance and demolish if at all any perception among management that ‘IT is a cost center’ on the contrary, he must create benchmarks on RoI, the bottom line impact, profitability and whole lot of business deliverables and link it with IT and its enterprise impact and drive home the point of ‘IT as a profit center.’

Clearly, the role of the CIO today is one of tightrope walking. He must be a multi-tasking guru and his/her goal is to create a state-of-the-art IT organization. They can be a technologist or business guru but having only one skill (either tech or business) and not the other will lead to failure. So to be a success, the CIO needs to be adept, agile, and willing to learn and unlearn. That will make for a successful CIO.


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