What should non-IT leaders understand about IT?

It is not uncommon for non-IT executives, including ones to whom IT reports, to complain that they don’t really know what IT does and how it operates. This sort of comment is often intended as a veiled (or not so veiled) criticism of the CIO and/or IT department with an implication that the CIO isn’t doing enough to explain what he and his organisation does in a way that a layman can understand.

However, whilst not disputing that this is a key responsibility of the CIO, it struck me that it might be worth considering matters from the opposite point of view. If CIOs have a duty to learn to speak the language of business, it is not also true that non-IT executives, particularly those to whom IT reports, have an equal duty to educate themselves on IT? After all, no one questions that a CEO, even if not from a finance background, should understand at least the basics of business finance.

If this is true, however, the next question is, where should a non-specialist who is seeking to do this start?

Often, where non-IT executives do seek to get involved in IT, they are drawn to the bits that they think that they understand or are personally interested in; which all too often takes you into the realm of personal computing, leading to endless boardroom discussions centred around iPads, smartphones and so on. Of course it’s impossible to completely avoid this. Senior executives are, after all, only human and as keen as all of the rest of us to get to play with the latest kit. However, if non-IT executives want to actually add value, my suggestion is that they should seek to educate themselves in the following areas:

  • IT organisation;
  • IT strategy;
  • IT planning;
  • IT management and governance.

Looking at each of these in turn:

IT organisation

For me, business leaders need to at least have an overall understanding of the possible different organisational and sourcing models for IT and their respective pros and cons. This will allow them to be clear on what role they expect IT to play in the organisation as a whole and ensure that it remains fit for purpose.

IT strategy

The critical issue here is to ensure that the IT strategy is both comprehensive (i.e. not just a technology wish list) and aligned to the big picture. CEOs in particular should consider themselves the customer for the IT strategy, should be clear about what it should include, and they want from it and should never accept being sold a product that they can’t understand.

As far as the technology element of this goes, I suggest that non-IT executives should at least have an overall appreciation of big picture technology trends that impact on their own area of business. As a minimum they should be able to challenge this element of an IT strategy so as to satisfy themselves that all the relevant topics have been considered, whilst avoiding getting into detailed technological blind alleys.

IT planning

This should flow naturally from the IT strategy (and, indeed the overall strategy for the organisation) and again business leaders and CEOs should have a clear understanding of what they expect (at a high level) to see in an IT plan and how it should be structured. They should play an active role in the formulation of the plan so that they can be sure that what they need has been included and can, where appropriate, challenge the detail in a logical way.

IT management and governance

This is one of the principal areas where IT can be seen as a black art and certainly one wouldn’t expect a non-IT executive to develop a detailed understanding of, for example, ITIL. Nevertheless, especially if they have line responsibility for IT, I believe that it is vital for non-IT executives to at least have an overall understanding of the issues around managing and controlling IT so that they are able to satisfy themselves that the relevant processes and structures are fit for purpose. This should include:

  • Where the division of responsibilities between IT and the business should sit.
  • What governance bodies and processes should be in place (including at least an awareness of the relevant methodologies).
  • The overall issues around recruiting, retaining and managing IT people.
  • How to manage IT suppliers.

For me, focusing on these areas will enable the non-IT executive to strike the right balance between being disengaged and being a ‘meddler’ and all them to work with the CIO and IT department to provide the best overall outcomes.

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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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December 2017
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