Do IT Leaders Need to Know Technology?


Predicting the future is one of the more fun—and, well, futile—things to do, particularly when it comes to technology.

In the past few weeks, I've been speaking with a number of prominent IT thinkers and experts about what IT organizations will look like in 2015. Last week, Eric Sigurdson, head of the information officers practice at executive search firm Russell Reynolds Associates, spoke with me about the changing role of technology, the CIO and the IT organization.

His thinking:

"Seven or eight years from now, one of two things will happen: you'll either see CIOs become more business oriented, or you'll see IT become such a fabric of business that business leaders become more tech competent."

The idea of CIOs becoming more business oriented is one that probably makes most business executives salivate. And plenty of IT leaders out there have shown their strategic and business prowess—just look at how many of them have expanded their portfolios or moved up the corporate ladder.

But it also brings up a growing trend of non-IT operatives taking on the CIO role. Certainly tech know-how is an integral part of the job, but is it becoming less of a criterion in the eyes of the executives that hire CIOs?

Sigurdson's comments come in response to what Globality co-author Hal Sirkin told me about the future of IT orgs. Sirkin believes IT leaders need to be more of a bridge between IT and the business.

Not a new idea, at his own admission, but one that simply hasn't worked yet. And that's scary, given all the talk about how business savvy CIOs are (or aren't). But he's got a point.

Sigurdson also spoke about a generational shift, where a new era of executives raised on technology will weave more of it into their plans. (Witness FedEx CIO Rob Carter, who explained how his team helps executives get a better grip on technology by literally putting more of it in their hands.)

Also on this topic: Barry Brunsman discusses how the rise of IT services gives IT organizations a new way to measure their own value.

So, where do you think IT orgs are headed? What will they look like, and function like, in 2015?


6 Comments for "Do IT Leaders Need to Know Technology?"

  • Dave Brattain November 25, 2008 4:45 pm

    May I turn this notion of "alignment with the business" on its head for a moment? I believe that in the future the business will align with IT! Not in the sense that everyone will become engineers but rather that they will not look to technology as a panacea but rather as an existing highway that gets them to a destination. In the future, users will align themselves with solutions and delivery mechanisms that may offer a wide variety of interface options but will perform to a standard set of processes. The notion that "our business process model is unique" is no-longer going to be an excuse for outragously expensive development projects and "calico-cat" infrastructures cobbled together in every concievable way. It simply costs too much to engage a legion of business people, business analysts, project managers, programmers and so on, because we want a different "look and feel" or "we think we can do logistics management better than a FedEx or UPS". I'm afraid that in the vast majority of situations, the operational problems and frankly most of those problems associated with other aspects of "the business" have been solved many times over. It is simply the myopic notions of an influential few who believe that we must constantly churn these cauldrons and burn precious dollars for little or no benefit. Yes my friends, the old adage is true that, "China has never been successfully occupied." One will either need to become Chinese or die. And that is where I think "the business" is headed. If you doubt this notion, answer these simple questions; - If you order fast food, do you ask the person behind the counter for a recommendation or do you call out a number when its your turn to order? - How do you pay your bills? Online, I'll bet. Do you set some or all of them to pay automatically each month? - WHEN you make a purchase online, do you really care what the screens look like? If so, why would anyone make purchases using a phone or PDA? - Which side of the road do you drive on in the U.S.? If you were in England would you insist that you drive your way? In the end, IT is about simplification, ubiquity and standardization as inexpensively and effectively as possible. A company's wares must stand on their own merit.

  • ben breeland November 08, 2008 2:50 pm

    An IT leader's requirement to know technology depends on corporate leadership and business requirements. The author seems to imply that outsourcing IT functions is the future, with the IT leader acting as a manager of the outsourced "black-box" functions, ensuring that he remains within budget and meets business goals. Personally, I think this is a good goal much like transportation. When one leaves home to go to work in the morning, there is no need to consult with an auto mechanic prior to driving your personal car, taking a taxi or using public transportation. One selects the transportation method and off to work we go. Unfortunately, in some businesses, this "black-box" approach does not offer enough flexibility and no room for innovation that drives business and increase revenue. In these instances, I think an IT leader needs to know the technology involved.

  • dj dunleavy November 07, 2008 4:32 pm

    Anyone remember John Scully? I've seen it time and time again: top executives snowed by IT vendors, costing companies tens of millions of dollars until they stumble on a better road. Someone needs to know the difference between fantasy and reality. I've been a business analyst and a systems designer. You can always send someone in to get a handle on the business side. There is less time and money at risk there. It's the implementation that costs you. To me, I'd rather have a man who can handle the big-ticket item.

  • Terry November 07, 2008 2:42 pm

    This has been a debate that I have observed with some amusement for many years. Bottom line, if IT is not aligned with business goals, IT IS THE FAULT OF THE BUSINESS! I have never understood why IT takes the blame for management failure. The whole idea that somehow the service is at fault for not being able to read minds is silly. It's like the captain of an aircraft carrier saying, "It�™s not my fault the planes crash. I don�™t know anything about flying." It�™s your job to know how the whole business works, not just the sales department. This is an excuse, not a reason; we have too many executives that have the mindset that their job is politics and political maneuvering, and they just don�™t have time for mundane things like business issues. Your business management does not have to be able to build a server, write an accounting application or set up a Cisco node. But they should be able to format a floppy, send an e-mail and find a Web site. If they can�™t, you need new "business guys."

  • Yitzhak November 07, 2008 12:19 pm

    Outrages. Nobody is asking a question if 1. CFO needs to know about finance 2. Army generals must know about army, wars, aviation, tanks, soldiers, etc. 3. Marketing executives know about marketing 4. Bernanke, Chairman of the Federal Reserve, supposed to know about money markets. 5. And so on, this list will go forever. But so called "IT leaders" are not supposed to know squat about IT .

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