If you want to get into IT, the education path is mostly pretty straightforward. But what do you do training-wise if you want to get to the other end of the progression - the top job in IT in business, becoming the Chief Information Officer (CIO)? Gary Flood investigates.

When it comes to training CIOs, it turns out there are very little formal options on offer in the UK. Though respected analyst group Gartner has a short programme (its CIO Academy, which takes place annually as a residential course at the Said Business School at the University of Oxford), and some universities do offer structured programmes, there is a widespread feeling that there is a problem in terms of preparing aspiring and next generation CIOs for the job.

At least one prestigious UK institution believes there is such a training gap and has stepped in to fill it. The City University in London has announced a programme for developing the CIOs of the future, The Centre for Information Leadership.

'There is currently no centre in the UK that aims to bring an interdisciplinary approach to the development of CIOs, supported by truly independent, evidence-based strategy and policy work,' says Andrew Tuson, City's Head of Computing. The Centre will launch a masters degree in Information Leadership designed for experienced information technology professionals in 2010, as well as a mix of other education options.

'We are doing this because we don't feel the UK higher education sector is really doing enough to support the CIO and the IT leader as they progress through their career,' he goes on. 'Some business schools offer what they claim is training for senior IT people based on a multi-disciplinary approach, which is fine - but we don't think there's enough out there that's specific and targeted enough for this job role.'

Existing courses

Having said that, some of City's academic rivals have somewhat ruffled feathers at any claim that there is nothing out there in higher education, citing their own, often well-established, programmes. The two best-known UK academic institutions offering executive and bespoke training for business people are the University of Cranfield and Henley Business School (now a part of the University of Reading).

Joe Peppard is Professor of Information Systems in the School of Management at Cranfield University. Cranfield doesn't offer an MBA type degree specifically for CIOs, he explains, but does provide a structured three month course for CIO education and development. 'Our average intake are mid-career IT professionals, from a mixture of public and private sector backgrounds, in their 40s, and I do have to say predominantly male,' he says.

Around 20 such individuals per academic year from across European companies take the programme, which is broken into a series of residential and project components centred on building what Peppard calls 'organisational capability' and 'leadership' qualities. 'We work on candidates' relationship skills, both internally and with suppliers, but also look to them to provide proof of how they can help drive change and foster innovation in the organisations they are placed in,' he adds.

Meanwhile at Henley, senior IT executives from an unnamed but 'major' European business are having a special customised masters programme developed for them by a team led by former CIO Sharm Manwani, Programme Director. The curriculum, he says, focuses on core CIO topics such as how to better align business and IT goals and business benefit delivery tracking. As it stands, only delegates from the client company can attend the course: this is standard practice for Henley, which often offers bespoke management training for a paying client as well as general courses open to all.

MBAs - a potential route?

So is City's charge that there is a crisis in CIO training an overstatement? Not really, as there is actually very little room for complacency when it comes to the state of training for the CIO level of IT leaders in this country.

For example, one might think that a modern MBA, a qualification open to all aspiring C-level executives, would feature IT highly. But that is not so. 'Many of the leading US and UK business schools have dropped IT or IS as a required, core component in their MBAs,' laments Peppard. 'This is an issue of some concerned debate in the IT leadership community in universities as it’s potentially quite worrying,' he adds. 'You can foresee a whole generation of captains of industry who will emerge with no overall sense of the contribution IT can make.'

For Manwani, the dropping of IT on most general MBAs is 'shocking' and there 'clearly is the danger of a gap developing here. IT-enabled business change is a huge factor in the 21st century and there could be a real problem if larger organisations weren't exposed to the power of IT at the highest decision making level,' he warns.

Graeme Smith, an IT industry veteran who did an MBA in the 1990s so as to advance his career, sees the same problem: 'Having an understanding of how advanced technology provides business benefits to an organisation should be a part of all executive toolkits.'

Still, there are some top British business schools, such as Manchester, that do in fact have an IT element as a core requirement in their MBA programme. Clare Hudson, Director for Career Management Services at the School, says, 'I can confirm we do have a core IT module, management of information systems, on our main MBA programme, which puts it on the same level as other absolutely core business disciples like finance, international business operations, economics and so on.'

However, Hudson adds that the IT people who take the MBA don't as a rule return to IT jobs, even at the CIO level. 'The IT people who come on to the course tend not to go back to IT of the kind of technical background they came from, but to more general management and strategic roles in the business.

IT at a strategic level

What's behind the decline of interest in IT at the strategic level? A refusal to see its alleged transformative possibilities, worry critics. 'If the CIO isn't on the board and ends up reporting to the CFO - well, that's a disaster. All he's ever going to be asked to focus on is cost, cost, cost. The CIO's aspiration has to get as far as the board so that the true transformational impact of IT can be fully achieved,' claims City's Tuson, for example.

Peppard, for one, believes there is something seriously wrong with IT itself. 'Even after 50 years of commercial IT use we still have such a startlingly high rate of IT project failure. Why? It can't be if it ever was that “the technology just doesn't work” because it does. Something is still missing here - and there's still some kind of gap between knowing how to do this and doing it right.'

The wider issue around CIO training then is actually questions such as what CIOs are and what their contribution should and could be. As much as 70 per cent of IT leaders believe that more attention needs to be placed on the education of CIOs, according to a recent poll of members by CIO Connect, a membership organisation for CIOs. But training for what, precisely?

For Ade McCormack, a self-styled 'Blogger, Advisor, FT columnist, Author and Speaker' on issues around the 'CIO agenda,' there is a real crisis in what IT and CIOs are ‘for’.

One problem here is that there is no one, clear, agreed definition of what a CIO actually is - still,' he warns. 'In general, it's an ill-defined role also subject to a lot of ongoing change; it's a very dynamic job function in that sense.'

Becoming a CIO demands having quite a lot of both learned and acquired skills. 'A CIO must add softer management and political skills to their natural talents. It's tough, because most members of the management team are not required to ride two horses in this way,' says John Lamb, who has over 30 years experience as a writer and analyst of the IT scene.

CIOs in the boardroom

That's not to say that there aren't many individuals who do attend some of the CIO training available and who find great value in it (see box on page 15); nor that there aren't any very capable IT leaders bringing true value to their organisations. But there seems to be quite a lot of evidence around that suggests talk of the natural end-point of the IT careerist being 'on the board' at a peer-level position to the head of sales or marketing or finance is not necessarily true.

Statistics show that not one single leader of a FTSE 100 public company comes from an IT background. This slightly more fact-based perspective, perhaps, might suggest more appropriate and realistic training pathways for ambitious individuals and organisations with tight training budgets, too.

'What's the real goal here?' asks Stuart Lauchlan, a commentator on IT for 20 years. 'The business-literate CIO or the IT-literate business person? For decades, IT people have staked their claim on a seat at the boardroom table and pursued MBAs and other such qualifications in a bid to be more than “the geek in the suit”. In some ways, it's a horribly out-of-date view - the idea that you go off and get a piece of paper - a very expensive one at that! - and somehow you're now business person of the year.'

It seems that training for a CIO role is much more complex than one would have thought. Yet what is certain is that IT isn't going to 'go away' - business, like it or not, has to deal with it and find the best way of benefiting from it.

A set of tool to get me further ahead

Gary Gascoigne, a graduate of one of the Cranfield IT leadership programmes said they'd got great value out of the experience. Gascoigne, who is General Manager in the central IT department of high street retailer Asda in Leeds, graduated out of one of the Cranfield IT leadership programmes and said he got great value out of the experience. (Asda and Cranfield have a long-established relationship, with the latter providing high-level training and management education.)

Gascoigne joined the Asda training programme in a technical role 20 years ago, was trained in core Novell and Microsoft technologies, then moved up to project management.

'I went on the Cranfield IT leadership programme in 2008 and found it very useful - in fact I have returned to take some more short courses since. I liked the way it looked at things from the IT perspective alongside other business approaches. I think it worked extremely well, made me think outside the box and start seeing things from a more strategic level. I think it's definitely prepared me for new skills and new roles in the future - within both Asda and also Wal-Mart [Asda's parent company] itself, potentially.'

'This training has given me a set of tools I think will help me get further towards becoming a CIO one day - definitely.'

To find out more

This article also appears in the ebook Management Skills in IT.