CIO career query: Does your background make or break it?

Does technical orientation or a traditional background mould a CIO's career in the long run? Who wins? Is the ideal CIO a geek or the business man?

This debate has long stood, and still continues. What makes for a better CIO—technical background or business orientation? Is the balance as unachievable as a Holy Grail while the CIO career is being shaped?

While contemplatingthe direction of a CIO's career in the above context, one question that comes to the mind is: Who would be better suited to meet these requirements—a traditionally-trained CIO with an analytical and business-oriented mind or a technically-trained CIO with comprehensive knowledge of available solutions? We decided to ask the veterans about whether there's a silver bullet when it comes to the background for an ideal CIO career.

KNC Nair, group CIO at Muthoot, says, "I believe that every CIO should primarily function from the business point of view. Technology is renewed every couple of years and the CIO has to keep himself updated, but developing a keen sense to add business value comes from experience." The CIO needs to know what the final business goal is, and what is expected out of the IT solution. This domain knowledge will lend the right insights to his decision-making process. It will help mold the CIO career favorably in the long run. "Domain knowledge is not acquired simply by management degrees. Traditional backgrounds have to lend the experience of decision making and other managerial tasks," says Sudesh Puthran, the CIO of CIBIL.

If a CIO is merely technically trained during the course of his career, his focus would be limited to just the technical development of the project and the company. Secondly, any new challenge that comes his way would primarily be viewed from a technical point of view. On the other hand, CIOs with non-technical backgrounds have a drawback that they do not fully appreciate the capabilities or the limitations of technology. As part of their jobs, CIOs should be able to remove redundancies and increase productivity. These goals get hampered if they are not aware of the available technology. Thus, a singular inclination toward either technology or business may hamper the CIO career.

Domain knowledge is not acquired simply by management degrees. Traditional backgrounds have to lend the experience of decision making and other managerial tasks
Sudesh Puthran

 For a technical person who has not been in touch with the business processes, learning and understanding the same is a very gradual process, which can come in the way of strategy building. A CIO needs to depend on his business instinct, which comes with experience in traditional backgrounds. This instinct will go a long way in shaping the CIO career and will open a lot of managerial avenues for the CIO within the organization.

According to Tamal Chakravorty, the CIO of Ericsson India, "At the end of the day, I do not view technical training as a bottleneck to the business, because the learning process is bound to happen, irrespective of whether one is technically trained or otherwise. If the person has been with a company long enough, then he is bound to know how the business is conducted." Puthran reiterates the fact that while a CIO is fundamentally around to deliver technical solutions, he should be able to handle many more aspects. "Thus, technology has to be his base, and above that he has to be aligned to the domain knowledge in order to bring satisfaction to the end-user. He has to lead in the company in terms of defining technology strategies and solutions. A purely technical person without the domain and people skills will not survive," he feels. It is clear that business understanding will go a long way in influencing the CIO career in the long run.

With respect to the CIO's relationship with the CEO, Nair says, "There has to be a direct link of understanding between the CIO and the CEO." Therefore, communication, interaction and cross-learning become very essential. "A technically-trained CIO has to in fact work harder to grasp the vision of the CEO and to get his attention. IT was previously considered a black box and not exactly an enabler. Now, things have changed. The CEO expects IT to be delivered to him in the form of business solutions. The CIO has to make sure IT is not considered as an afterthought but is involved from the very beginning of the planning process. The CIO career is intertwined with those of other C-level executives within the organization," Puthran feels.

Citing an example from his tenure as the CIO of Federal Bank, Nair states that the average cost of deposits was very high at that point. Considering this, the bank engaged in a project to increase the savings deposits and doing this meant increasing the customer base. The opportunity was seen in Kerala in 2000 where the ATM penetration had started. So a survey was done and a large-scale ATM deployment in small rural towns was undertaken. Within a year, it was a success since savings deposits increased by 25% within this timeframe. This led to a further implementation of 400 ATMs in the next couple of years. Clearly, the business-orientation had been the driving force behind this deployment. During the course of the CIO's career, there may be many instances where the business challenge takes precedence and the CIO has to use his aptitude to overcome it.

Chakravorty cites another example from his CIO career to elaborate the power of technology-driven solutions. His organization had an issue in 2005 where employees were getting paid in a 30-60 days time frame for travel and other such reimbursements. The employees were unhappy with this system. This was an organizational challenge and could not have been solved by any managerial task. "There were people working on it, but a lot of paper work was generated by the current process and there were losses occurring while the papers moved between departments and finally reached accounts. To overcome these challenges, we put in place an application called Concur for travel management. That was a technical solution to a managerial issue," he says. Technology is, and will always remain the CIO's main tool as he surges ahead in his career.

When a person moves to the CIO level, he has to forget about his background. As the Chief Information Officer, his job primarily is to see that the information forms solutions and aids the business at the right time and place. If a CIO career is put under the scanner, it would be safe to say that as long as CIOs are providing the service that they are supposed to provide to the business, viz. catering to the various information needs of the company, they are doing a good job.

Ideally, the CIO should be an amalgamation of the business and technical mind. He has to leverage technology to enhance business value and provide returns to the organization. In order to survive in the real world, the CIO has to develop domain knowledge and inculcate people management skills by working with the various business units to deliver solutions aligned to their requirements. If these simple rules are kept in mind, there is no looking back for the CIO. The true fruition of a CIO's career would be to ride the wave of technical innovation while seamlessly furthering business objectives.

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