Moving to the board - a CIO pathway by the Open University

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The Open University's Kevin Streater looks at the IT sector's struggle to turn today's talented IT staff into tomorrow's boardroom decision makers. As IT becomes intrinsic to broader business strategy and CIOs increasingly sit directly under the Chief Executive in many companies, how can IT ensure more of its own are taking their seat at the top table?


Businesses are struggling to turn entry-level staff into senior management. At present around half of those brought into CIO positions come from outside the IT profession. This is worrying for two reasons. Firstly, it means a large proportion of those who make decisions on future IT strategy will have had no experience of delivering these strategies on the ground. Secondly, the lack of a clear path to senior positions will affect staff satisfaction and risks strengthening the tide of people leaving the sector.

The lack of IT workers moving up to the board should not be attributed to any lack of aspiration or ability within the UK's IT workforce. It's more an indication that up until now there has not been the tools to guide their development around the additional responsibilities they will face upon taking this step.

Whilst progression into entry and mid-level jobs requires an initial focus on reactive technical skills in order to understand the technology you are working with, as IT workers move further up in their organisation to senior management, greater demands are placed on their ability to collaborate and understand the results of the updates or innovations they deliver. These are the skills which enable good project work that produces clear business benefits.

At the final stages of development, learning should focus around the skills which identify CIOs as leaders. From an internal point of view this means understanding people, how they function within your organisation and how you develop them as professionals. But it's also about external, outward-looking leadership, understanding the changes in the market and the modern commercial realties of the IT industry and how these impact on your organisation.

Today's learning and development programmes must reflect these changes to give future CIOs the skills to thrive. 

The Open University has taken a large step towards addressing this issue by licensing the CIO Executive Council Pathways competency framework, which allows future CIOs to follow a clearly devised learning plan to board level.  The framework has been mapped to The Open University's extensive online curriculum, including courses from the University's top rated, triple accredited business school, to provide future CIOs with the essential skills required to reach board-level status.

The pathways framework aims to help companies improve their success in turning entry-level staff into the company's senior management and attract the best new entrants into the sector with the promise of a clear career path. It is the first ver learning tool specifically aimed at grooming future CIOs with the skills the industry needs and has been developed in collaboration with senior IT professionals who best understand the sector.

Following the pathway enables Open University students to have the right training at the right stage in their career. In the section below we look at the core skills required to make that step up to the board and how these additional skills-sets are applied in a real working environment.


Market Knowledge - understanding the market in which a business operates. This business context can include the competition, the suppliers, the customer base and the regulatory environment. Initially it comes down to knowing the basics of the market and how your business fits in to this context, but with further learning you will develop the skills and expertise to spot trends and anticipate, capitalize or even drives changes in the market.


Change Leadership - transforming and aligning an organisation through its people to drive for improvement in new and challenging directions. It is energising a whole organisation to want to change in the same direction. It's not just about accepting and adapting to change within your organisation but also proactively changing existing process and mobilising others to change as well.


Commercial Orientation - identifying and moving towards business opportunities. It is about having the understanding of how money is made in order to identify, prioritise and seize opportunities to increase profit and revenue. At the highest level it also includes inventing whole new ways to increase commerce.


Customer Focus - improving service to clients by better understanding their needs, and then using this information to anticipate future changes in their needs. After building up these value-added relationships with customers or clients, be they internal or external, CIOs should look to proactively shape the customer value proposition well beyond the transactional relationship.

Strategic Orientation -understanding the objectives within your own area of work and then looking beyond those to a broader business awareness and critical analysis of information. At the highest level it involves generating a strategic plan that integrates numerous business issues, functions and resources for effective action.


A full list of skills, how these have been mapped to the CIO pathways, and how they can be developed through relevant Open University courses, can be found here.

Also read:

Making your way in IT: Advice in entry-level IT professionals

IT sector must speak in skills to bridge gaps in capability and boost IT workforce

First steps towards a career in IT by the Open University

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1 Comment

This is a sticky issues as I believe we are seeign a split in the role of the CIO where some companies will decide the CIO role is obsolete preferring to rely on tech savvy functional leaders with a smaller percentage or companies deciding to retain the CIO role with a more narrow focus.

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