Dual control

Traditionally, there are two types of CIOs - those who come from business to IT, or those who come from IT to business. But what companies are really looking for is a CIO who is adept at both, a hybrid of IT and business acumen. ACN asks today's CIOs how they use both skills to climb the corporate ladder.

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By  Brid-Aine Conway Published  September 23, 2007

The role of the CIO has changed a lot over the last few years. Technology is no longer seen as just one of the many support functions of a business, but as a hugely important enabler. In fact, today, most industries could not imagine trying to operate a business without the support of IT. And because technology has gained importance in the business framework, more is being expected from CIOs and IT heads. It's no longer enough to have the wonders of modern technology at their fingertips - they also need the business savvy to go with it.

Alistair Sinclair is CIO at Mashreq, a UAE bank. Although here Sinclair discusses the issue for modern CIOs from this role, he provides a unique perspective. He is one of the few senior IT managers who simultaneously operates as a business leader in his capacity as CEO of Mindscape IT.

A good understanding of technology is very important, because the business demands it and it will suffer if the CIO doesn’t manage the technology function properly.

"A CIO has really got to have a multi-dimensional view of the function he's performing. He's got to know the business, he's got to be a business man, not just a technologist and he's got to be able to operate comfortably at senior levels, both with business people and other technologists," he says.

This is sound advice, some might even say it was self-evident, but balancing IT and business skills is not always easy. Ramesh Cidambi, director of IT and logistics at Dubai Duty Free (DDF), believes that a CIO with a good grasp of technology can do his or her job, but a CIO with a good grasp of business and a poor grasp of technology will find his or her role very difficult.

"A good understanding of technology is very important, first for the CIO to retain his job and also because the business demands it and the business will suffer if the CIO doesn't manage the technology function properly. The understanding of the business side becomes important once the CIO is at the level of the senior management team and more is expected of him," he adds.

Sinclair says it's not only important to have a good grasp of technology, but a CIO also needs to make sure they have a broad knowledge base in all areas of technology.

"I think the key is to have a very good broad knowledge of the technologies. And there are many, many technologies that you need awareness of - networks, mainframe and other hardware environments and other platform skills- it's actually quite demanding as far as knowledge is concerned," he continues.

Once the CIO has a strong base in technology, they need to start building their business skills. Cidambi claims this is not as difficult as it might appear because a CIO's IT and business skills are not diametrically opposed.

"I don't see the two as being dichotomous - it's not as if a CIO wakes up in the morning one day and says, today I'm going to learn all about business," he jokes.

He says that a CIO's natural progression through the business to the current role should lay the beginnings of that knowledge. He feels if they spend time on the applications side of the business, on business processes and on understanding the gaps in the organisation and if they are listening to the conversations in management meetings, this is where their initial business awareness will come from.

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