Information Technology Management with a Purpose

Aug 30 2010   8:51AM GMT

How much technology should a CIO know?

S R Balasubramanian Profile: S R Balasubramanian

Today’s CIO faces a dilemma. He knows technology, and he thinks he knows the business that his company is in. However, he’s confronted with articles and seminars that discuss the CIO role, which emphasize the fact that he should understand and participate in business. All these mean well, but these emphasize so much times on other aspects that the CIO’s knowledge of technology is pushed far into the background.

In fact, some of the articles also state that the CIO should not be a technology person but one from business. These even suggest that the CIO can always have technical personnel to help him achieve his objectives. So our CIO ends up tearing his hair as he tries to understand his place in the corporate world—unsure of his relevance.

Now let us debate this point a little. Let us assume that a bright manager who manages some business aspect is assigned to lead the team as a CIO. He definitely understands the business scenario and the company’s needs that are to be addressed. However, he may not be sure about which of these aspects could be addressed through technology. So he calls his technology manager and asks for ideas; so far, so good. Now the techie explains new technologies, but is not able to convince our CIO. Here, the question is about whether you run your business the way you conceive. Do you just put in technology for automation? That may not be the optimal usage of technology for business.

So it’s important to know not just business. It’s equally important to know and understand technology; how it could be applied to business. In my opinion, the CIO should also scan the technology environment—pick out technologies that could be relevant to his business.

Then he has to evaluate these technologies in detail. To do so, he should not only read articles and other hand-outs, but also meet and discuss various aspects with the technology vendors. Now, to be in a position to evaluate technologies, you have to learn them first. This involves constant research about organizations that have applied various technologies, attending events that speak about technology applications (and success stories) as well as speaking to consultants (or user organizations) to learn of the new developments. Well, all these involve time. Therefore, knowledge of technology cannot be pushed aside.

In this connection, let me recount my stint in a management consulting firm. My counterparts working on accounts and inventory applications used to finalize all processes and forms. These would then be handed over to IT in order to automate the process. For them, IT enablement meant putting in a few square boxes on the form to help enter the account numbers or inventory codes. Many a time, during discussion of these processes, I used to point out many processes that could have been made simpler—just by just applying our minds to think of processes from an automation context. Many of these specifications changed as a result. This is why I feel that knowledge of just one side of the picture is not enough to do justice.

So, it doesn’t really matter whether the CIO is a business person with a fair comprehension of technology or a technology person with a good idea of business. It is important to know technology before we think of applying it.

CIOs need not feel shy talking about technology even though it is fashionable to talk of business. If he professes to know technology, it may not necessarily put him into a slot where he may be looked down upon. The issues rise when he talks only in technical terms. If he closes his eyes and ears to other matters concerning business, then he is definitely asking for trouble. I for one, feel that those types of professionals are slowly becoming scarce.

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