I'm not an engineer, and years ago, as a young technology reporter, I recall more than one moment when I regretted this fact heartily. Usually, those times occurred during live interviews and demonstrations, when it was clear that a technical detail had escaped me, and I had to plead for explanations the interviewee felt I shouldn't have needed.
In one painful instance, I left a particularly knotty session in a hotel tradeshow suite, only to hear someone mutter behind my back, "Another crackerjack interview!" with a mocking titter.
Well, I'm no longer that beet-faced neophyte. I may even do some (hopefully harmless) tittering of my own now and then. Over time, I've learned that it's more important to know what I don't know than to be an expert in all things, particularly when I can't command my inner engineer to exceed a particular level of competency.
Which brings me to my point (and yes, I do have one): Not every CIO has to be highly technical.
Still, the level of technical expertise a CIO requires continues to be debated industry-wide. In a current exchange on a LinkedIn group for CIOs, for instance, many commenters among the more than 120 who weighed in believed that business acumen was more important than technological know-how for IT execs. Still, being basically IT competent was considered essential.
One participant summed it up: "A CIO doesn't need to be a hard core techie but does need to have well rounded IT skills, knowledge and experience, business focus and be as good a leader as possible."
Another commenter warned that to focus too much on a person's background diverts a discussion from issues to personalities and ceases to be constructive.
But surely, leadership requires the perception of competence by underlings, doesn't it? After all, in other C-suite jobs, such as that of CEO, credibility and knowledge are key traits.
A CIO study undertaken by IBM does not underplay the role of a technical background for CIOs: "Every CIO still has to deliver excellence in the fundamentals: the secure and reliable delivery of information technology is one example."
But in the study, which includes information from interviews with over 3,000 CIOs globally, other strengths are mentioned as important to CIOs in today's enterprise environments:
To increase competitiveness, 83 percent of CIOs have
visionary plans that include business intelligence and analytics, followed by mobility solutions (74 percent) and virtualization (68 percent).
Does a CIO necessarily have to know everything about these technologies to promote them effectively within the organization?
I'd say no, with caveats.
CIOs today need to excel at business and at
building relationships. They must work shoulder-to-shoulder with their CEOs and board chairs to achieve the company's fundamental goals, which are not directly related to the underlying technological mechanisms used to achieve those goals. CIOs must know how to manage a business and its personnel effectively in order to do this.
Part of this management calls for CIOs to know where to go to obtain the expertise they need, whether that's in analytics, virtualization, mobility, e-commerce, or otherwise.
In short, the CIO must know what she or he doesn't know. But that in itself is an art and a talent.
— Mary Jander , Managing Editor, Internet Evolution