Monday, October 20, 2014

The CIO's Self-Reflection: Are you a technologist or business leader?

The CIO must now wear many hats, and see the forest for the trees.

Due to the changing nature of technology, the CIO role continues to be shaken up, refined, reinvented and reenergized; CIOs also have to do self-reflection: are you a tactical IT manager or business strategist? Are you a technology specialist or a specialized generalist? Are you an order taker or a senior business advisor, are you a technologist or business leader? Are they mutually exclusive? If not, shall you, or can you become both?

Technologist vs. Business Leader: A technologist is somebody who is a subject expert, a technology specialist who has in-depth knowledge of a specific IT subject. This requires no leadership, strategic or management abilities. But digital blurs the business and technology, even the SME (subject matter expertise) nowadays should understand the business, and speak the common business language when needed. A business leader is somebody who can lead from the front or behind & has no requirement to get into the bits and bytes of technical details, but with the omnipresence of IT consumerization, all leaders need to have a certain level of digital fluency and acquire the necessary knowledge to understand IT better.

A CIO needs to be a business leader first, technology leader second: A CIO first needs to be a business leader in strategy deployment to engage the IT role and facilitate in the technologist role. Then in the technology role, a CIO needs to have a sharp mind to leverage business initiatives in artful design using the cloud, mobile, analytics, and wearable technologies. The best CIOs tend to describe themselves as business leaders, and as a result, of that attitude and belief, they align better with the needs of the business. But they have to understand the technology and have to be able to drive technology to a business end. Without either one, you're handicapped. There are many good business leaders who failed because they didn't understand the technology or good technologists are not good leaders because they didn't have cognizance of the business.

A CIO's insight of IT must be a mile wide and an inch deep: In-depth understanding IT improves CIO leadership effectiveness in managing staff and partners. Every CxO should be a business leader. Having strong business and leadership capabilities should be hygiene factors only, not the main differentiator at the C-team level. CIOs should uniquely provide knowledge of and responsibility for technology, the same as a CFO brings finance knowledge and owns a number of finance/accounting responsibilities. Technology leaders may not be effective to lead technology-savvy IT staff if they had little understanding of the technology they are responsible for. They didn't have the technical depth or interest to effectively recruit, understand team and supplier challenges, provide on-the-spot rough estimates to the C-team, sniff out looming technical risk/debt crises and were ignorant of emergent technology waves that could help the business. A CIO's knowledge of technology must be deep enough to offer business solutions that drive costs low and brings about effective operations. The variety of modern IT technology and their rapid obsolescence assumes that it is almost impossible to know all IT technologies. In the best case, the CIO's knowledge of IT must be a mile wide and an inch deep. The CIO, in all fairness, must be a Technology Leader, who, in an increasingly technology-centric business environment, must make decisions that matter; around strategy and IT. It is a strategy that "drives" the business. CIOs must anticipate changes to their business and respond before the business come knocking.

The CIO must now wear many hats, and see the forest for the trees. In most organizations, the IT leader is positioned to understand the business across the enterprise ("Seeing the forest through the trees"). When he/she can accomplish that goal, that is when IT can drive value into the organization. Then your IT leadership expertise as a technologist can shine most effectively because you are business enablers, from internal support to Sales, Marketing, Finance-billing, Operations, Customer Care and Satisfaction, and lastly, report all of the above. It is all about the business value, personal or functional. And that value can be tangible or intangible. It is about leadership, CIOs are responsible for delivering value, enabling and catalyzing the business and beyond. The modern CIO must have a balance of technology and business knowledge. A good modern CIO operates with terms like "profit growth," "cost optimization" and "increase productivity." And, of course, he or she must be a business leader. On the other hand, the position of the CIO means that you have to strike the right balance between business demands and the cost of technical solutions and risks. You can't separate the technical skills of the CIO from his/her business skills. In this situation you must be like two-faced Janus - the first face should see the future of business and speak in the business language and at the same time, the second face must evaluate technical risks and cost of solution for your company.

Increasingly, the CIO looks to play a role in supplementing the business vision with technology as the accelerator and innovator. The growth mind, and egoless adaptation is important for improving CIO leadership maturity. Business leadership skill and technical knowledge are all critical requirements and believe the different organization needs a different type of CIO with the knowledge balance point fits its needs and culture. It is a hard role and a slippery slope to balance them both successfully, but that is why it is an increasingly critical senior leadership role to make a cross-functional influence and beyond.


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Yep I completely agree that you need to be a leader in one of them else you won’t find your job of being a CIO smooth ride. Our professor from college, Aloke Ghosh always used to lay emphasis on mastering any one of these two. Now I realize how correct he was!

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