CIOs need business smarts, too

Today's chief information officers need to be tech savvy, and also be good at managing people and thinking strategically.

SINGAPORE--Technical competence is not the only attribute to look for in top IT executives today. CIOs in Asia must also have keen business acumen and continuously drive innovation, a new study shows.

Commissioned by IT management software vendor CA, the survey was conducted by Insead InnovAsia, a business research unit--specializing on Asian technology markets--of graduate business school Insead.

"I spend more time understanding the business rather than the technology."
-- Rosina Howe-Teo, chief innovation officer, Singapore's Land Transport Authority

Martin Kralik, research director at Insead InnovAsia, said: "The question about whether the role of the CIO is necessary no longer exists now. But CIOs recognize that they need to create new ways for IT to add value to the organization, and be seen as contributing to the company's bottom line."

IT heads know they must bring innovation into the organization and align the company's IT plans with its business focus and the CEO's vision, he said. According to Kralik, the findings are based on a "small qualitative survey" of "a few dozens" of CIOs in Singapore, Malaysia, India and Thailand.

Philip Anderson, Insead's director of 3i Centurelab, noted that businesses are not looking for technology wizards.

"If I were going to hire a CIO, his technical capability is a given," he said. "I'll expect [the candidate] to have an ability to integrate [and manage] an increasingly diverse team. And I'll expect [the CIO] to have the business judgment to figure out what the company's key business needs are and [be able to] prioritize IT accordingly."

IT heads ZDNet Asia spoke with agree that their roles today have evolved to one that requires more than just technology competency.

Rosina Howe-Teo, director and chief innovation officer of IT at Singapore's Land Transport Authority (LTA), explains: "I am no longer valued only for how technology savvy I am, but as a senior management executive managing both technology and business needs together," she said. "I spend more time understanding the business rather than the technology."

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"In this role, the value I bring to my organization is how well I bring forth the potential of technology to meet business needs, whether these are short-term operational needs or long-term strategic applications."

Noting that LTA's day-to-day IT operations are managed by her senior officers, Howe-Teo added that she often has to market her ideas to senior management as well as her peers, to create better awareness and gain their endorsement.

For some IT heads, it also means putting oneself in the shoes of top management.

Roger Lim, IT manager of Singapore's largest cinema operator Golden Village (GV), said: "It is not enough to just think like a technical person in today's context, we must be able to integrate the role of our CEO and CFO into our work arena. "Their concerns must be our top concerns," he added.

Lim stressed that while there is a need to constantly think of new ways to use IT to stay competitive, there are two other factors to consider: cost and strategically aligning IT to the business.

"I don't look at technology and ask myself how it applies to my company. I look out for business needs and problems first. And if I can identify them out, I will then see whether any technological solutions can meet those needs or resolve the problem," he explained. Colin Quek, CIO of Raffles Medical Group, pointed out that IT investments must result in direct benefit to patients and the healthcare services provider. "We do not invest in technology just for the purpose of 'keeping up with the Joneses'," he said.

"While we do not seek to be on the bleeding edge of technology, it doesn't preclude a first-mover investment if we spot a disruptive technology."
-- Colin Quek, CIO, Raffles Medical Group

"Staying ahead of the competition for us means spending wisely [to achieve] maximum bang for our dollar, [and in turn] enable us to be more agile or cost effective than [our competitors]," Quek said.

Searching for innovation
Seeking ways to achieve cost efficiency is also what drives innovation across LTA.

Howe-Teo explained that innovation for the government agency stems from a need to be cost-conscious and financially prudent.

"The more you watch your spending, the more you innovate to seek better solutions," she said. "Being innovative does not exclude having to justify each IT dollar spent."

"At the end of the day, results need to be quantified against the investment made," she added. "The more savings and benefits we report, the greater the demand for IT services [from other teams in the organization] seeking similar benefits."

To be innovative, GV's Lim noted, IT heads must stay abreast of new technologies in the market and have the "freedom to exercise creativity". "If we are always fire-fighting and trying to resolve IT problems, we would be too busy [to come up with] creative ways [of deploying technology]," he explained.

Lim underscored the importance of "proper delegation" and empowering IT staff to solve problems. This would then free up CIOs to think strategically and to develop new innovative ideas.

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But for Raffles Medical's Quek, at least some parts of innovation will require staying on top of the latest technology developments.

"While we do not seek to be on the bleeding edge of technology, it doesn't preclude a first-mover investment if we spot a disruptive technology," he said. "We also constantly question the way we work and deliver our service, so as to identify opportunities where IT can be deployed to speed up a process or allow a staff member to be more efficient or effective."

According to Kralik, however, the Insead survey indicated that a lack of business knowledge within the IT department is proving to be a major challenge in enabling CIOs to fulfill their role.

The CIOs surveyed also feel overwhelmed by the backlog of user requests and projects, he added.

Lim said his biggest challenge is ensuring GV meets the demands from the public.

"As an IT head of a company in the retail service industry, I want to be able to use technology to excite the public's taste buds and to ensure smooth [delivery of our services]," he said.

The challenge then, he added, is to stay ahead of changing market demands and whenever possible, "predict the next wave of [user] expectation".

"Yesterday's solution cannot satisfy today's demand," he said.