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  • Writer's pictureNick Lansley

Are the best CIOs from non-technical backgrounds?

This was the question posed to me by Kenny MacIver, editor of “I: Global Intelligence for the CIO” magazine.

When I responded, “No I think the best CIOs are NOT from non-technical backgrounds”, Kenny replied, “Good! I would like you to write an article about that view, and we’ll print it alongside someone who thinks that he best CIOs ARE from non-technical backgrounds”.

I hate writing clichés down but I appear to recall that I answered Kenny’s challenge with the words, “Game On!”. After all, our own CIO has a technical and R&D past which chimes perfectly with my own strong views on the subject, and I sympathise hugely with colleagues in my wider peer group of UK IT professionals who don’t have that advantage with their CIO.

So here is my article below, now published in I-CIO magazine which has arrived at my desk. If you want to know what the other guy said you’re just going to have to get the magazine!

I start from a position of strength: All the most senior IT directors at have a strong technical background, and our current CIO has an R&D past – bullseye! This only adds to the sympathy I feel for those in my peer group outside Tesco whose CIO has proudly boasted of a pro-business-but-non-technical background.

I know why their CIOs behave this way: for many years the CIO or IT Director never had a place amongst the board members of many companies; IT just wasn’t taken that seriously. Sure, we made a difference to the efficiency of company processes but we didn’t actually have our own interaction with customers compared to commercial, marketing, finance and other board-level disciplines.

Thankfully, today IT’s importance demands a board position. However the authors of that role often think that a technical CIO will speak in an incomprehensible language to the others, so successful candidates have boasted of anything-but-technical skills and experience. “Don’t worry,” they assure fellow directors, “I’ll have a team that do technical stuff”.

On the surface that seems like reassurance indeed, until an IT project hits snags and delays implementation. The CIO doesn’t fully understand why – it’s just that he’s heard bad news from his team and is impotent to understand what to do next; how to help solve the problem; even how to lead.

So let’s start getting real about CIO roles by designing a role that has deep technical experience combined with some commercial or operational practice – and I have to tell you that some elements of this list come from talking to my CIO :

  1. I want a CIO who thinks of himself as a Chief Innovation Officer as much as a Chief Information Officer. He should engage with other board members to improve, simplify and cheapen the cost of all their processes. He should lead innovation to make touchpoints better for customers . He is not a project “order taker” for his fellow board members – he’s a leader in championing improvements.

  2. I want a CIO who can help his colleagues on the board by talking about the technical stuff using relevant metaphors and analogies to help their non-IT minds grasp an issue. He should be able to illuminate IT technologies in his colleagues minds, indeed excite them.

  3. I want a CIO who can walk around the office and hold a good technical conversation with most of his team – and be interested in learning about new technologies and ways of working.

  4. Finally I want a CIO who, amongst his project successes, there exists a failure; a faint mental scar carried from an IT project delivered late, or that one didn’t perform well at launch. This CIO worked with his team to understand the problem and lead them to a solution whilst defending them; watching their backs when his fellow board members grumbled.

Finally, think of the unacceptability of the Finance Director who doesn’t know about accounting practices, or the Marketing Director who is naive about focussing budget on targeted demographics.

A CIO who has no grasp of IT technology ends up being impotent when the going gets tough.

In a world where IT makes the difference, that difference could be fatal.

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