Hi, Technology!

Hi, Technology!

So you've just been introduced to your job as CIO and you're not exactly a technical wizard. To be successful, you don't have to pick up an engineering degree, but you do have to earn the respect of your IT colleaguesReader ROI Companies are increasingly hiring CIOs with non-technical backgrounds in areas such as HR and finance. This story will examine -The advantages non-technical CIOs bring to their jobs - How those CIOs can gain credibility with more technically oriented IT staffers - How they can keep abreast of technology In 1993 the then chief executive of the Australian Computer Society (ACS), Ashley Goldsworthy, was predicting that organisations would soon start to appoint chief information officers from outside the ranks of IT. Reiterating the old theme that the "T" in IT is subordinate to the "I", Goldsworthy anticipated that CIOs would come from business units and other professions, such as accountancy, rather than necessarily be IT professionals. At the same time, Goldsworthy and others in the ACS were crusading for certification of IT professionals and for them to be able to demonstrate they had a specialist body of knowledge. In other words, the message was that you have to be qualified to practise IT, but not necessarily to manage it. By and large, though, Goldsworthy's prediction has not materialised. According to Stephen Lennard, a partner with recruitment consultants Hamilton, James & Bruce, except in areas such as managing large outsourcing contracts where the required skill set is different, most of those being appointed to CIO roles still have IT backgrounds. Yet there are exceptions, both by design and circumstances. But for nontechnically oriented CIOs, the transition to IS is not always easy.

These outsiders face challenges that their high-tech counterparts do not.

Taking Care of Business

For the last 10 years Dan Hill has worked for the Queensland government and has recently been appointed director corporate strategy and information after three years as director information resource management, which he describes as a traditional IT director's role. However, Hill's background is in finance and economics and very much on the policy side of government. It was while working in the Land Transport and Safety Division, which is responsible for driver licensing and vehicle registration, that he got drawn into the IT world. "The division is probably the biggest client of IT in the organisation and I was business sponsor of some major IT projects," Hill explains. "Then [in 1996] I got the opportunity, initially short term, to fill in [as head of IT]. Over the previous 12 months I had sown the seeds in some people's minds and let it be known that if the opportunity arose, I wouldn't mind giving it a go, as I felt I could contribute something." After identifying some key issues to be addressed in IT and following changes in Queensland Transport's senior management structure, Hill's new role became permanent. He hadn't managed IT people before this but had managed other specialist technical staff, so he says he was aware of the cultural and management issues involved. And while he didn't get too many surprises, he admits his credibility for the job was questioned.

"People's initial reaction was: 'What would you know about IT?', and there was certainly a period early on when I had to build my credibility with the IT staff," Hill says. "I think I'm pretty well regarded by them now and have a very effective working relationship. I had to prove to them, not that I knew more about IT than they did, but that I was capable of understanding their view of the world and really appreciating their expertise. I've always been very careful to respect their technical competence and not to second guess them on that, but rather to focus on helping them put that in the right business context." Not surprisingly, Hill had to build a strong team around him whose technical skills he could rely on. This took time. The problem he found was that there are a lot of people in middle management positions in IT who are technically very competent but weak in management skills. Outside his own team, Hill believes his peers across the organisation recognised that he had a good set of skills and knowledge that were relevant to his new job. However, he admits to having given some of them a bit of grief along the way, and as time has gone on they regard him less as "one of their own".

"There were issues that needed to be dealt with that some of them were avoiding and I don't know that the challenges would have been any different if I had come from the IT side. The big advantage I had not coming from IT, though, was that I could tackle some of the legacy issues without any of their baggage tied around me," Hill says. "IT itself had a credibility problem and it would have been very difficult for someone internally to address those issues, whereas I could come in and start afresh. Consequently, people were willing to cut me some slack and give me time to address these problems. "You can come into IT from the business side and do a good job. There are certain skills you have to have and certain things you have to be willing to learn. You can also come through IT and step up through the business side. But not everybody's able to do it from either side. You have to find people with the right set of skills." As director information resource management, Hill had line management responsibility for both the operational and strategic aspects of IT. In his newly created role he is responsible only for strategy, and the IT staff now report indirectly to him. Having now been one, Hill thinks the CIO's job is one of the toughest in any organisation. You need to be very good at the strategic issues, he says, but there's also great pressure to get the operational side right as well. And doing both is difficult. "I think my career from here, whatever I do, will have a strong flavour of leveraging IT. All along I've been very interested in how to use IT to move an organisation forward. The experience in running an IT operation has helped me really understand some of the challenges in doing that," he says.

The Human Element

Paul Robinson has recently been confirmed as director of information technology services (ITS) at the University of New England after three and a half years as acting director. After working in finance and human resources at both CSIRO and the University of New England, Robinson's entry into IT management was circumstantial. He initially joined ITS as executive officer, in charge of administration and working directly with the director. However, an emergency arose whereby the director suffered a number of bouts of serious illness and was frequently absent. During those times, Robinson assumed the role of acting director, as the most appropriate person for the position at the time. When the director retired on medical grounds, Robinson says he "was put in charge until they worked out what to do next, but that took a lot longer than anyone thought". He found the transition to IT management difficult and he says it continues to be so, given that IT is a complex field and that changes in technology are difficult to keep up with. So Like Hill, he relies heavily on his technical staff. "Things don't change so rapidly in general management as they do in IT," Robinson reflects. "There's a wider breadth of tasks in IT and a lot more technical complexity. You have to rely heavily on others for technical advice and they often don't know what you don't know. It's a disadvantage you have to be conscious of all the time.

"However, the advantage I have is that I can act much better as a link between IT and the rest of the university. I can convey things to the other areas in language they can understand. My particular background has also been useful in getting a clearer recognition within the university of the role of IT, because I've been able to look at it from a financial and staffing point of view." Because of his background in human resources and his good interpersonal skills, Robinson claims his staff were always reasonably accepting of him in his new role. He emphasised from the outset the need for a team effort and had been in the ITS directorate long enough to have established his credentials. There was still some opposition to start with, though. "A couple of people within the team didn't think I had the street cred as an IT director and took that to a higher court. But those same people came back six months later and said they had been wrong, because they now recognised I had other qualities that compensated," Robinson says.

Unlike Hill, though, Robinson believes that a non-technical background is a distinct disadvantage for a CIO and admits he would be far happier in the job if his IT skills were higher. In hindsight, he wishes he had put more effort into understanding the technical side of the role sooner rather then adopting a "mind the fort" attitude in his role as acting director. Robinson now has a three-to-five-year plan at the end of which he wants to have built up his IT skills such that he could go on to take up an IT director's job elsewhere and at a higher level. Other notable outsiders include Teri Whiting, vice president of information services, FH Faulding; and Doug Woodhouse, assistant secretary, IT branch, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). Reporting directly to the CEO, Whiting has global responsibility for IT across the Faulding Group and was head-hunted for the position in 1997 because of her corporate management skills. She believes CIOs must understand IT, but should not be perceived as techies and thinks it's debatable as to whether they should have a technical background.

After his holding consular postings in Greece, Syria, India and the USA since 1976 and working on a review of Australia's overseas representation, DFAT asked Woodhouse to take charge of its IT branch in June 1996. Having been a user in big embassies such as Washington DC (from where he was recalled to take up the CIO role), Woodhouse thinks his background helps him focus on user requirements. He admits to having been vocal in telling IT people the need to understand the business case. There have also been a number of organisations which have appointed a non-IT professional to head up IT for a fixed period of tenure, typically one to two years, either as part of a senior development program or to tackle specific problems. The Right Chemistry. In April 1993 Chris Stevens was working as a manufacturing manager for The Smith's Snackfood Company in Adelaide when the company's finance director rang him out of the blue and asked him if he'd like to move to Sydney and run the IS department. An industrial chemist by training, Stevens' background lies in the technical and operations side of the food industry, which is heavily reliant on IT. He says that at that time the IS department was struggling in its relationship with the business. It was under pressure to meet everyone's expectations and was consequently meeting none. The finance director felt he needed someone from the business to try and integrate the department back into the business and who could also educate the business about how to use the IT function.

Stevens also saw the offer as a good career opportunity. It would move him into the head office environment, where he could learn the skills, such as business strategy, that he had no opportunity to learn in operations. It would also enable him to see across all areas of the business. Senior users already knew Stevens from other areas of the business, where he says he had delivered results. But there was uncertainty among his new staff in the IS department about how he would perform, and how he would judge them. It was therefore important to deliver some results quickly so that the business could see the arrangement would work. "I had to take a deep breath moving into the role without the relevant technical skills," he says. "I had to rely on the integrity of my staff and my own management and internal client-relation skills. But once there it was not so difficult. I'd had engineers working for me for years and I found IT people no different to manage. We didn't lose anybody throughout the whole change process. Only roles changed structurally and a number of people ended up in more senior positions. The organisation also got a much better understanding of what IT could and couldn't do and the IS department learned to say no. I considered that a major achievement."One disadvantage Stevens had was dealing with IT suppliers. Some tried to pull the wool over his eyes given his background; others didn't know how to deal with him. However, he says the process soon taught him who were the good suppliers. Stevens managed the IS department for two years. Although he says he was welcome to remain in the role, the company asked him to move into a business re-engineering exercise that was under way. He consequently maintained a strong affiliation with IT for the next six months. After that he took over the research and development department, which was suffering from the same sorts of problems he had tackled in IS. He was later appointed manufacturing director, but recently left the company following its takeover by Pepsico.

To IT or Not to IT

While all of the non-technical CIOs interviewed here no doubt had special attributes outside IT they could bring to the CIO job, there's unlikely to be to be a flood of organisations following suit. However good the technical backup staff is, such appointments are still potentially dangerous and raise the question of whether it's professionally ethical to appoint to such a key role someone who is not formally qualified and experienced. At some point, outsiders must come to grips with IT and it's usually quicker, more practical and a better investment to bring IT professionals up to speed on business and management skills. Chances are that an IT professional with an MBA is better equipped to manage IT than a generalist with an MBA.

Helpful Hints

Common mistakes non technical CIOs should avoid - Don't fall out of the business-side loop once you cross over to IT. Make sure you know what the senior executives' IT needs are and they know what initiatives are under way in IT.

- Don't become too obsessed with the bottom line. A narrow cost focus can stifle creativity and potential. Get to know IT and the projects that are under way before starting to eliminate costs.

- Don't underestimate the technical challenges of the job. That attitude not only can alienate the IT staff, it can backfire with the senior business executives, who want the CIO to clearly articulate how a technology trend can advance the business.

- Don't fall out of step with the business's strategic direction. Remember that your business knowledge can degenerate quickly and that you need to maintain your credibility with the business side by staying on top of the business.

- Make an effort to network. If you stay too isolated, being a CIO will become a very lonely job. You need people you can call weekly to discuss ideas and technology.

-- Mindy Blodgett

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More about Australian Computer SocietyAustralian Computer SocietyCSIROCSIRODepartment of Foreign Affairs and TradeFH FauldingIT PeopleManaged ITPepsiCoQueensland GovernmentUniversity of New EnglandUniversity of New England

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