How much technical knowledge does an IT decision maker need to have to make a well-informed decision and lead a project to success?
One IT vendor recently told me of a growing concern he has about IT heads in Singapore. He said that unlike their counterparts in India, who have the technical knowledge and are not afraid to highlight it, Singapore CIOs are quick to acknowledge their lack of technical knowledge during their first meetings with IT vendors. He said it is common today to hear IT heads proclaim: "I'm not technical" or "I'm a business person".
"Err, how is this a bad thing?" I asked. Isn't this what we've been stressing, that managing IT is about the business and not the technology per se?
I didn't see his point until he highlighted how important it is for the decision maker to have enough technical knowledge to be discerning and effective in the job. Without enough technical knowledge (to ask the right questions, and to identify unrealistic project timelines and wrong assumptions), the IT chief risks being taken for a ride, or held hostage, by the vendor, he explained.
What a pertinent point, which also applies to senior executives across the various business lines. For example, a hotel manager who has worked at the frontdesk, will know exactly what levels of service to implement, and expect from his staff. He will also be able to better anticipate his hotel guests' needs and introduce new ways to better serve them.
Ken Torok, president of UPS Asia-Pacific, told me in a previous interview how much he valued his early job experience as a delivery driver. The graduate of North Carolina State University began his logistics career unloading and loading trucks in 1975. He was promoted and, over the years, moved up through the ranks in the organization.
Torok said: "When I first started...the district manager said I couldn't be a supervisor because I had not driven one of our package trucks and delivered packages. He explained that in order to supervise people, I had to understand our core business and to understand it--I had to deliver packages... I drove for six to nine months, and by then I had understood what it took to deliver packages in the rain, the storm, all kinds of bad weather, and how to deal with customers."
Business leaders will be more effective in their jobs if they have hands-on or more intimate knowledge of the business. And in the context of IT decision-making, it certainly works in any business leader's favor to have some technical knowledge. Do you think you have sufficient IT knowledge to negotiate the best deals and to set the right service levels with your vendor? How do you make sure you've set realistic goals for your staff or contractor?