From manager to chief information officer

Moving into a company's top IT post requires a shift in focus, both organisationally and personally, from technology management...

Moving into a company's top IT post requires a shift in focus, both organisationally and personally, from technology management to technology exploitation

Despite the huge business impact of technology over the past 40 years, most IT departments are only minor contributors to the development of business strategy.

A survey of senior non-IT executives in European companies published by Gartner in July found that the chief information officer has less influence on strategy than any other equivalent level manager except the human resources director.

So what transforms an IT manager into a chief information officer who can command the respect of the board and contribute to business strategy?

Influencing an organisation's strategy and helping it to reach its objectives does not require greater technical knowledge or even project management skills. What it needs is a shift in focus, both organisationally and personally, from technology management to technology exploitation.

In the past the head of IT would have recruited someone with a similar technical background, now they need to bring in business process skills. Previously IT projects ended with a systems implementation, now they have to enable business change.

A typical technology manager works on the sourcing, installation, deployment and management of IT systems. This is vital. Technology presents many traps for the unwary and good IT managers avoid those traps to deliver efficiency and responsiveness. Although vital, this is rarely strategic. It does not by itself help an organisation become more agile, focus more closely on customers, or progress to any other business goal.

By contrast, CIOs are expected to be forward-looking managers, focused on IT exploitation, who work in the overlap between strategy, technology and organisation. They find creative ways in which their companies can improve, and occasionally transform, business processes and information exchange.

So, when explaining the benefits of a newly installed ERP system to the board, CIOs do not need to go into detail about its inner workings and how the software is state of the art. Instead, they should talk about how managers can now immediately validate orders, which makes delivery, billing and stock replenishment more effective.

How many managers in the IT profession have the skills to deliver on this vision of business partnership and IT exploitation?

Henley Management College and the British Computer Society conducted a survey of more than 50 senior IT professionals to determine which skills they viewed as important and which they perceived to be lacking in their industry.

The survey categorised five types of skill in IT: technical, professional, management, business and personal. It found that the skills required to support the change in focus and exploit IT - those skills most needed to move from being an IT manager to a CIO - are scarce.

Technical skills are not the problem. Just 2% of respondents said their organisation lacked IT managers with the right technical skills (for example, developing Oracle databases and supporting Microsoft operating systems). Developing professional skills in areas such as service delivery and systems development was considered more important than maintaining technical skills.

One might expect that the organisations surveyed - many of them large businesses - would be able to recruit and develop the skills needed to manage the implementation of technology. Yet there was a surprising and substantial gap in management skills, highlighted by 41% of respondents who considered that their junior and middle managers lacked core project and service management skills.

The skills rated as most important were the personal abilities that enable IT managers to gain the respect of non-IT executives and to build effective partnerships. This was also the main area of concern, with 53% of IT leaders reporting a shortage of people with a high-level of personal skills, such as communication and leadership.

One respondent said he wanted managers who had "personality, and the ability to interrelate with colleagues within IT and elsewhere in the business". Another commented, "Communications skills at all levels are utterly essential - particularly listening skills."

IT directors are all too aware of the need to explain IT to the board using business terms. But sometimes they resort to using governance jargon. For instance, they may talk about the process needed to appoint a steering group project sponsor when it is more effective to say, "I have looked around the business and the person we need to lead this is Jane."

Fifty-one per cent of respondents said their IT departments lacked business knowledge, both in general and in their industry. For instance, one IT director wanted "someone who always thinks about alignment with business goals and objectives". Another emphasised the importance of "hybrid skills - being able to connect IT and business".

Given the need to build a range of skills, there is no single answer to the skills development challenge. In many cases, organisations are looking to suppliers for technical skills and to organisations such as the BCS for professional skills. For selected staff they use postgraduate education to develop generic business and management skills. Yet there is little agreement on how to develop the personal credibility and specific business insights to operate at the highest levels.

IT managers also need strong personal and business skills to influence their organisation's strategy and progress to the role of CIO.

One way for an IT manager to assess their so-called soft skills is to conduct a personality test (which will identify strengths and weaknesses in how they work and interact with staff). In addition, taking a business qualification can boost confidence when dealing with the board and provide a useful perspective on how to run an IT department like a business.

Sharm Manwani is head of information management at Henley Management College. David Flint is research vice-president at Gartner

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