HomeCareer Management

What CIOs need to know about the business (first appeared in InfoWorld)

Like Tweet Pin it Share Share Email

News flash!

In another case of psychologists proving what we’ve long suspected, Justin Kruger and David Dunning, publishing in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, demonstrated the inverse correlation between actual ability and self-assessment.

The better employees think they are, the worse they actually are and vice versa.

Armed with this little factoid, I expect battalions of mediocre programmers to immediately try to improve their ability to write good code by adding humility to their conversation. While the humility, however insincere, will be a welcome change, it will start a tiresome variant of the decrepit “You only thought I knew that you knew that I knew that you knew” gag.

But I digress.

I just read another version of the “CIOs need to know the business” article. I think there’s just one article on the subject, and when a writer is feeling tired he pulls it out, shuffles some paragraphs around, e-mails it in, and goes back to sleep. They’re all the same, really. They make the hoary point that businesses don’t want technology for technology’s sake — technology must serve a business need, and successful CIOs will embrace this concept.

Some insights are more startling than others, I guess. But before we go on, let’s all hold hands and chant together: “Yes, CIOs must know the business, and never propose technology for technology’s sake.” Maybe if we say it loud and proud a few times, everyone in earshot will understand that we’ve fully grasped this concept, and we can all move on to the next one.

The next one, made many times in this space, is that “knowing the business” doesn’t begin and end with abstract notions like strategies and business models. The most important part of knowing the business is knowing the interests, hot-buttons (and cold-buttons), pet programs and pet peeves of every important decision-maker in the company. At least half of an average CIO’s time is spent selling. It’s internal selling … to the board of directors, CEO, senior executives, middle managers … but selling nonetheless.

If you don’t like the idea of having to sell internally, find a different word that describes the process of persuading others to adopt your concepts, in the process adding money to your budget.

If it looks, waddles, and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck. If it looks, smells, and tastes like selling, it’s selling.

To sell effectively, you need to understand your prospects on an empathic level. You need to understand the business, formally, politically, and personally.

Why, oh why do so many seemingly sensible people jump from here to the ridiculous notion that the CIO can delegate the “understanding technology” part of running IS to subordinates? Would anyone reach a similar conclusion down the hall a few doors, and figure the CFO doesn’t need to understand accounting, just “the business”?

Of course not. Of course, they’d probably reach the right conclusion for the wrong reason, explaining that at the end of the day … or at least the fiscal year … the money is the business. Robert McNamara, overconfident of his ability (sound familiar?) due to his business resume, used a similar thought process in pursuit of victory in Vietnam, running a metrics-driven war in which relative body counts (profits) mattered more than the formulation and execution of strategy and tactics.

CFOs need to understand finance and accounting because they run that part of the business and they need to understand the discipline. CIOs need to understand information technology because that’s what they’re responsible for. This isn’t a complex concept, nor should it be controversial.

Go back to the idea that CIOs spend a lot of their time selling. What do really great sales people do? They paint a persuasive vision of how great your world will be once you’ve incorporated what they’re selling into it.

What’s the first step? Understand what you’re selling. In the case of a CIOs, that’s information technology. Without that knowledge, no matter how good you are at step two — understanding your prospects’ world — you’ll have no way of progressing to step three: Putting that knowledge and your product together.