How much should CEOs understand about IT?

First and foremost, apologies for the rather long gap since my last post. Things have been pretty hectic over the last few months, which is of course good from my personal point of view, but has meant it has been hard to find the time and energy to keep my blog up to date.

Anyway, as things are starting to get a bit calmer, now seems a good time to get back on the blogging trail and what I have decided to do is a bit of public thinking about how well the business needs to understand IT.

IT departments are often accused of not understanding the business well enough. In my experience, sometimes this is genuinely the case - especially when the department has a strong technology focus. At other times, particularly where there are cultural issues in the organisation, the accusation may be more a political stick with which to beat IT. What one seldom seems to hear, however, is the opposite accusation; that the business side needs to improve its knowledge of IT.

It seems to be widely accepted that IT should be viewed by the business as a sort of ‘black box’, where they may define the inputs and outputs but have no real knowledge of what goes on between them or of the wider environment within which IT has to work. I have started to wonder recently however, whether this is a healthy state of affairs. To use an analogy, would it be acceptable for a CEO to have no knowledge of finance, even down to being unable to read a balance sheet, or no understanding of how to manage staff, on the basis that he or she has a CFO and CPO to deal with these issues? If not, why can’t the same be said of IT, particularly when you consider how totally dependent most organisations now are on their IT systems and tools?

To some extent, I think IT professionals need to consider whether they have colluded in this state of affairs. There seems to be a reluctance to challenge back when accused of not explaining things in sufficiently simple language. This may be because IT is still perceived in many organisations as more of a supplier than a fundamental part of the business. I can think of many occasions in meetings with business colleagues where I have been told ‘why do you people make things so complicated?’ and the thought has gone through my head ‘because it is complicated!’. I don’t think I have ever had the nerve to say that, however.

One could also argue that CIOs and IT departments actively discourage non-IT execs from asking too many questions about what is happening within the black box. Maybe this is to avoid having to get into what might be perceived as unnecessary discussions but I think that this can backfire. The result of this approach could be a situation where the non-IT executive’s perception of what IT is all about is based on the bit of IT that they think that they do understand; namely end-user computing (in particular their personal home technology). This can lead senior level time being taken up on relatively trivial debates about laptops, tablets, mobile phones and the like.

One also runs the risk of execs allowing, or even encouraging, this ‘home computing’ approach to IT to come into the office. Where the IT department is perceived as slow, expensive and inflexible (possibly, dare one say it, with some justification) there will always be a temptation to try to bypass them, with the possible result that critical business processes are being carried out though unsupported and/or poorly constructed business built applications, typically based on Excel, Access or similar.

So, if execs should know more about IT, what should they be expected to know? Clearly, one wouldn’t normally expect the CEO of a large organisation to be a skilled developer or system integrator. My personal feeling is that an architectural approach to educating the business might work best. One could start on the (hopefully) relatively familiar ground of the overall the business process architecture and then work down into the underlying systems, how they fit together and how they are developed and supported, which naturally leads to at least some understanding of issues such as sourcing strategy, information security and business continuity.

Is this too much to ask? Well to a great extent this probably depends on individuals. Some execs will be keen to learn and understand, others won’t want to know and, so long as a working knowledge of IT isn’t expected of them, will be able to get away with that.

My conclusion is that on balance I think that senior execs should have an overall understanding (at an appropriate level) of the systems and the technologies that underpin their business and how they work and fit together. I suggest that over time this will become an essential requirement of any senior organisational role. However, it seems to me that, in most cases, we are a long way from that. It is also worth stressing that this in no way removes the need for IT to understand the business.

One final thought: is this a generational issue? Much has been written about the generation of so called ‘digital natives’, who have grown up with and lived all their lives with technology, now coming into the workplace. As they push into senior roles will these issues go away? I’m not sure. Yes these people are much more familiar with technology as an integral part of their lives, but I suspect that the knowledge is still focused on the end-user environment and I still think there will be a need for executives to develop a better overall understanding of what is going on inside the black box.

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About the author

Adam Davison MBCS CITP has an MSc in IT from the University of Aston and has filled a variety of senior IT strategy roles for organisations such as E.ON and Esso.

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