Say hello to the chief information 'octopus'

My recent blogs touched on an often-raised criticism that chief information officers (CIOs) lack technical knowledge. I asked several CIOs for their reactions and highlighted the views of two--CIOs Linus Tham and James Loo--in last week's blog.
Written by Isabelle Chan, Contributor

My recent blogs touched on an often-raised criticism that chief information officers (CIOs) lack technical knowledge. I asked several CIOs for their reactions and highlighted the views of two--CIOs Linus Tham and James Loo--in last week's blog.

Based on what these executives told me, I think that CIOs are caught between a rock and a hard place. Hell, they get criticized for not having enough business smarts, too. The truth is the role is multi-faceted. "There is no such thing as black and white--there is only grey," said one CIO. "Find me a real CIO who can honestly say that his world is one-dimensional."

I found a job recruitment listing on the Internet, describing a CIO position with a healthcare provider. It was a five-page document. It listed the CIO's responsibilities, which included providing technology vision and leadership; designing and implementing a range of technologies, computer systems and networks; overseeing system security; and facilitating communication between staff, management and vendors.

To qualify for the job, the candidate had to have a bachelor's degree in Computer Science or a related field, where those with a Master's degree in hospital or business administration would have an advantage. But that's not all. The candidate would have to be familiar with a range of software programs, operating systems and network designs, as well as have domain knowledge in healthcare, financial management and other business management skills. He or she would also have to demonstrate good communication and negotiation skills, and have experience in coordinating teams and developing corporate policies.

That was just a summarized version of a long list of responsibilities for the lucky candidate who lands the plump role.

Then again, job descriptions are easy to write, but generalizations are even easier to make.

Most of the CIOs, who responded to my questions, acknowledged the importance of having technical knowledge. Some maintained they know enough, others cited other CIOs whom they know to have very deep technical knowledge. But even if one does start off with strong technical expertise, he or she could easily lose touch with the technical details due to the nature of the job and the diversity of responsibilities, explained Daniel Lai, CIO of MTR. "The job is very demanding on a CIO's time and attention, which is required on many areas. Therefore, a CIO cannot devote sufficient time on technology or technical areas," he said.

New kid on the block It wasn't until the late 1990s and early-2000 that the CIO position emerged in corporate Asia. Most technology heads held various designations (many still do today) including IT director, vice president of IT, head of IT operations and IT manager; only a handful held the title of CIO, many of whom worked for multinational corporations. As corporate Asia gradually recognized they were buying computers and information technologies to address a business need, they embraced the role of the CIO.

"The CIO today has evolved from the previous definition, which was largely a manager of technology and one that was a more technical role, to today's creature who is better described as 'an octopus with as many eyes and brains as there are tentacles'," said one CIO.

Recounting how the CIO title emerged, he added: "In the old days, CIOs grew up through the ranks, thus imbuing them with not only technical depth but also real-world operational experience. The 'weakness', however, was the lack of management skills and a 'refusal' to let go of the technology--admittedly that is where the fun is--and the inability to speak English as understood by the rest of the human population.

"This 'weakness' resulted in senior management downgrading the importance of the CIO. Somewhere along the line, someone also drew a hard line between technical skills and IT management skills--this probably accounts for the CTO and CIO role split. We also started seeing the 'parachuting' in of business users to run IT--all in the name of IT alignment to the business presumably. So you end up with good management practices, but a woeful lack of understanding of the technology. It can be argued that all you need is an appreciation of IT that works for the CEO and the rest of senior management--but an appreciation is not enough for the CIO to do a good job. In fact, I argue that CEOs should know as much about IT as they seek to know about HR and finance."

A balancing act It's a tightrope walk for these senior executives. One CIO, who works in a government agency and doesn't have a formal IT background, said: "It would be an advantage to have cut your teeth as a programmer or developer, or at least as a project manager. However, with most development, operations and maintenance works being outsourced, such skills are not seen to be critical.

"The ability to manage IT as a business or service, aligning IT to strategic objectives, seems to be the core skills required of a CIO in many organizations," he said. "But there again, I believe a CIO needs to have a certain grasp of the underlying technologies, and the wisdom to discern substance from mere hype or fluff. And the only way to gain knowledge and achieve 'wisdom' in an environment of rapid changes, is to read voraciously, attend seminars and network with fellow CIOs and technical experts."

It is probably unrealistic to expect CIOs to have the same technical depth as a programmer, developer or network administrator.

"No one person can have all the knowledge at his or her fingertips," said Linus Tham, CIO, National Healthcare Group. "That is why we need to have a team of people whom we can work with and trust. And be humble enough to admit to our team when we need their input because we are less knowledgeable than they are in some areas. This, of course, enhances the CIO's knowledge, and helps build greater teamwork and also develops successors in an organization, which is a good thing. The CIO should also, therefore, be prepared to give team members the visibility and exposure, and not hog the limelight in front of all vendors all the time."

Perhaps, it's time for IT vendors to take a step back and review their sales strategies. The CIO may be the one who signs on the dotted line, but he certainly relies on his team to make the final decision. And for organizations that appoint a CIO with a business background, they could support him with a CTO or IT manager who has the technical skills. There may also be a need to draw a clearer distinction between internal IT support functions and those responsibilities that are more strategic, as this will help the CIO focus.

And the next time you meet a CIO, say hello to the chief information 'octapus'.

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