What to Do When Your CIO Doesn't Know IT

    February 15, 2017
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    By Steve Mason

    While IT used to be a cost center, it’s now a business driver, and the role of the CIO is changing.

    Since the mid-1980s, enterprises have relied on IT to implement business systems that supported workflow, and it was during this period that the role of Chief Information Officer came into existence. In these early days, the CIO was a technologist who organized independent groups responsible for telephone, fax, and printers. Together, their goal was to understand what and where information existed throughout the company, and to identify areas in which technology could boost efficiency or create new business opportunities.

    Much has changed in the last three decades. While IT continues to support interoffice communication, the department’s role now has a significant impact on how companies interact with consumers. But this isn’t the only change. The role and expected expertise of the CIO is also quite different than it was 30 years ago. For many businesses today, a background in technology is not necessarily a requirement for CIOs. According to the Society of Information Management, 17.5% of companies surveyed reported that their CIO did not have previous experience the IT field. Before this year, the highest reported percentage was 10.4%.

    With these numbers in mind, it’s worthwhile to ask: Why have companies decided that a background in IT is no longer essential, and how can IT professionals adjust to working underneath a CIO with no IT experience?

    A Change in Role

    Every business process now relies on technology, and nearly every company leverages data to make important business decisions. When the role of CIO was created, most businesses saw their IT departments as cost centers, but they’re now seen as business drivers. While the CIO must continue to maintain the IT infrastructure at peak performance, the role’s focus has shifted to cost reduction, risk reduction, and value improvement. Accordingly, business acumen has slowly become an equally important — if not more important — asset for CIOs than technical knowledge.

    "You can be a CIO with a technical background, but you can’t be a CIO without a business background. If you’ve got a business background and you’re technical, that’s great," said American Financial Resources, Inc. CIO Bill Packer. "If you’ve got just the technical background, I don’t know if you can really thrive. At the board level, you are talking about solving business problems — you can only do that if you understand the business."

    Bon Secours Health System CIO Laishy Williams-Carlson also believes business acumen has surpassed technical expertise for the modern CIO: “My two cents…is that a business background is more helpful.”

    To a significant extent, the cloud made this shift possible. As cloud providers develop more powerful tools to manage and facilitate services while hiding the technical backend from the user, there’s less and less of a need for CIOs to keep up with the latest technical developments.

    Still, executives across industries must possess at least some level of tech competency in order to be successful. In the words of InformationWeek Editor-in-Chief James M. Connolly, “more line of business managers have built their careers with a solid understanding of what technology can do for their organizations.”

    Bridge the Gap Between IT and Execs

    The new CIO wears a variety of hats, but most importantly they act as the point of connection between the IT department and business leadership. While a CIO’s business acumen may prepare them to communicate with other executives about business goals and dilemmas, IT professionals may find it ineffective to rely on non-technical CIOs to adequately communicate IT needs to the rest of the executive team. For that reason, it’s essential that IT teams make use of powerful tools to bridge the gap between their work and overarching business needs.

    Business value dashboards are great tools for communicating information about capacity, budgeting, and customer experience. Vityl Dashboard from TeamQuest helps to integrate, consolidate, and transform IT metrics into actionable business information. Put simply, a BVD translates technical data into terms that any executive can understand, and allows even the least technologically savvy CIOs to communicate the value and needs of their IT team.