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Success in CIO position increasingly tied to business expertise

Success for CIOs has little to do with technical knowledge, according to research out of Columbia University; a culture lesson from Disney; and the rise of digital humanism: The Data Mill reports.

Most CIOs last about 39 months on the job, according to Arthur M. Langer, citing research from executive recruitment firms Russell Reynolds Associates and Korn Ferry.

The first year, CIOs put together a plan; the second year, they execute on that plan; and the third year, "things don't turn out quite the way you'd like them to," said Langer, director of the Center for Technology Management and academic director of the executive Masters of Science Program at Columbia University. Then, they're gone.

What sets apart the CIOs who don't fit this pattern? Langer described 23 characteristics in his recent webinar, Strategic IT: The Transition Taking Place in the CIO Role. The material was based on research and interviews that he and his colleague Lyle Yorks conducted for their similarly named book. What the authors discovered is that the most successful CIOs have developed strategy advocacy, or "a process through which technology leaders in organizations build on functional expertise." In other words, success in the CIO position has less to do with building their technology prowess and more to do with the ability to master other areas of expertise important to running a business.

Here's advice from Langer on how to succeed in the CIO position:

  1. Push yourself outside your comfort zone. Langer said successful CIOs aren't waiting for someone to redefine the senior IT leader role. Instead, they're doing it themselves. "Rather than worrying about what everyone thinks the CIO should be, they were involved in things that were outside the norm of the CIO and certainly outside of their professional comfort zone," Langer said.
  2. Work on your communication skills. The most successful CIOs are "incredible communicators," Langer said, but they didn't necessarily start out that way. It takes practice, which includes having people critique your efforts. Successful CIOs "work hard on trying to understand how people around them think, how they're being seen," he said.
  3. Realize the importance of technical skills diminishes as you approach the CIO position. All of the CIOs Langer interviewed said this, which doesn't mean technical skills are irrelevant. They are important when managing down, Langer said, but "if you are enamored with all of this technical stuff, you tend to spend too much time in the technical areas rather than in the business ones."
  4. Build up your knowledge about the business. Langer suggests senior IT leaders spend more than 50% of their time in the field gaining insight and business expertise. Doing so gives CIOs the opportunity to learn, build credibility and communicate what they're observing at the executive and board levels. "It also builds support for the agenda you're producing," Langer said.
  5. Put the business before IT. "If there are things IT should be giving up for the good of the business, you should be advocating that -- not just agreeing to it, not being pushed into it, not necessarily protecting the boundaries of IT," Langer said.

A culture lesson from Disney

A new study by the MIT Sloan Management Review and Deloitte Digital concluded strategy -- not technology -- is vital for driving digital transformation.

Case in point? Results from the 2015 Digital Business Global Executive Study and Research Project revealed little difference in the use of new technologies at digitally immature versus mature companies. But, when it came to culture and strategy? The gap between the two types of companies was significant -- 15% of digitally immature companies reported having "a clear and coherent digital strategy" compared to 80% of digitally mature companies.

Gerald C. Kane, associate professor of information systems at the Boston College Carroll School of Management and guest editor at the Review, turned to the Walt Disney Co. to illustrate why building a digital strategy for internal employees as well as external customers is imperative. Disney is a leader in digital engagement with customers, but the same could not be said for how the entertainment company interacted with its employees.

Disney employees could, for example, order lunch from any restaurant in the city via a mobile app, but not from the company's own commissary. "What does that mean when it's easier for your employees to do business with other companies than with your own?" Kane said. Disney has since initiated a process of making internal operations mobile- and app-friendly, because "that's how employees interact in the world today," Kane said.

Hype cycle and digital humanism

Gartner released its 2015 Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies last week. A major focus in this year's report: technologies that support what Gartner calls digital humanism, or "the notion that people are the central focus in the manifestation of digital businesses and digital workplaces," according to a press announcement.

3-D bioprinting for organ transplants, brain-computer interface and neurobusiness, which Gartner defines as the capability of applying neuroscience insights to improve outcomes in customer and other business decision situations, were included in this year's report. At the peak of the hype cycle? Autonomous vehicles, Internet of Things and advanced analytics with self-service delivery.

Welcome to The Data Mill, a weekly column devoted to all things data. Heard something newsy (or gossipy)? Email me or find me on Twitter at @TT_Nicole.

Next Steps

Last time on The Data Mill, three communication tips that will change the way you lead

What the idea that “'every business is a technology business” means for the role of the CIO

Rebranding enterprise IT expertise: The new paradigm for CIO responsibilities

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In your opinion, what makes a successful CIO a success?
A successful CIO, in my mind, is one who is able to effectively communicate the value of IT to the organization, and get the department a seat at the table rather than solely having priorities dictated to it.  
I find these interesting, researchers telling the people who are actually DOING IT, what is important and what is not. Too many variables, many organizations are different but one thing is ALWAYS true, culture is the determining factor. As a CIO I do not have to have specific business expertise not do I have to have detailed-level IT knowledge but I better have a talent for putting the two together to create value.
The best CIOs are able to listen before they communicate. Not only are they disseminating essential information, they start by adjusting the essentials to the reality of the workplace. They dictate as only the last possible measure; first building consensus and bringing the full department into the conversation.
One of the best practices we frequently hear about is getting closer to the business, which, I've gathered, is easier said than done. What makes this so hard for businesses/CIOs/IT departments?
The ability to advocate for IT and to "sell" IT's value to the company. Also, the ability to effectively navigate between managing technology and leading an empowered team. I definitely believe that business expertise is every bit as important as technical knowledge.
In today's environment where if technology goes down the majority of companies go down. Bridging the gaps between IT Departments & Business opperations is a mandatory requirement. In order to be a transformational leader a true change agent you need to eliminate the BUSINESS only! INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY only.!.focus on bridging the chasm... Become a Business Technology leader.
Greg Raymond CEO CXOGLOBAL100
@Nicole. I think it’s harder said than done because the CIO position has, historically, been a technology position filled by people that come from a technology background. I’ve seen some good results with the recent trend to fill the CIO position with someone that knows the business, acts like a business partner and trusts their direct reports to run the technical side.
I couldn't agree more as indicated by my recent personal blog entry: