There was a recent discussion on LinkedIn about whether or not a CIO needs to be an IT guru. This is an interesting debate with valid points on either side of the argument.
Having tinkered with computers early on and then worked for a firms that built computers and networks for small to the midsize businesses, I cut my teeth on various aspects of technology early on in my career. I do not considered myself an expert in information technology, however I do have a brood understanding of it. I have also worked with CIOs that did not have a clue about technology and its importance to business and struggled with showing the value of IT.
Information technology is like medicine. It is large vast discipline with many components. When you go to your primary care physician she/he looks at you and tries to diagnosis your problem. If your physician thinks the problem is something more he will refer you to a specialist or a secondary care physician. Information technology is similar in that you have people with general skills and there are specialists that are called in for specific tasks. A CIO needs to be a sort of general practitioner.
How much or how less technical knowledge the CIO will have will depend on the specific type of enterprise, size, culture, and total staff make-up. However, some sort of IT knowledge is necessary so the CIO is familiar with all the IT working parts and knows where to go and whom to talk to for information. Having an IT background also helps the CIO communicate with his/her staff in a language they are familiar with – technical. Having an IT background allows the CIO to be able to see what is on the horizon from a technological standpoint and is able to lead the technological vision around the CEO’s corporate vision. Having this type of background will assist the CIO in developing the IT culture and prioritize goals for IT.
Would a company hire a CFO with no financial background or a COO with no operations experience? Probably not. So why would you hire a CIO without technical experience?
Being CIO means having a combination of knowledge, skills, experience and leadership. In addition to being business savvy and delivering the business value of IT, the CIO needs to understand information technology. A great CIO needs a balance of technology knowledge and business focus combined with great interpersonal skills to be successful.