Programmer, Reprogrammed

Building a more business-minded CIO.

This past September at a hotel in Atlanta, some 20 senior IT managers in industries ranging from agriculture to retail to high tech attended the first in a series of invitation-only “MBA for IT” seminars sponsored by Blazent Inc., a San Mateo, California-based software vendor.

Throughout the day, consultant Ron Griffin, a former chief information officer at Home Depot, led the attendees through a battery of courses designed to show IT managers how to integrate business fundamentals into their everyday work lives. Griffin began by discussing what CFOs and CEOs think of IT, and then covered such topics as IT governance, accounting, and finance fundamentals, how to effectively compete for budget dollars, and how to manage expenses. To make such concepts come to life, he peppered the course materials with quizzes and real-life examples, sharing anecdotes from his own experiences in more than 30 years of working in IT.

The goal: to build a better CIO. “We are trying to prepare the next generation of IT leadership,” says Griffin. “We want to give the attendees a full-blown curriculum that covers the waterfront for not only the business essentials that they need but also technology essentials, project essentials, management and administration essentials, and leadership essentials.”

Griffin uses the three-legged-stool analogy: in this instance, the legs are technological competence, communication skills, and business savvy. “If you are weak on any one of those,” he says, “you have a problem.”

For years, CFOs longed for CIOs who were at least familiar with concepts like hurdle rates and return on capital. Now, these wishes are becoming requirements. As Howard Rubin, an executive vice president at Meta Group, puts it, employers today are “looking for a new hybrid professional who understands the business and can translate it into systems action with high acuity. The new technology worker is not just a technology worker: he or she is a business-technology worker with good business skills, technology skills, and massive intellectual capital about the subject domain of their company.”

Senior IT executives are not the only techies who need to do some growing. Even midlevel IT workers are being pressed to expand their horizons. “Somebody who is inflexible and wants to be a programmer for the rest of their life is probably in the wrong industry,” says Stephen Pickett, vice president and CIO at Penske Corp., a Detroit-based transportation company, and a board member of the Society for Information Management (SIM).

This corporate push for more business savvy IT workers can be seen in the types of training offered by various professional organizations. At SIM, president Nancy Markle, a former CIO at Arthur Andersen Americas, says, “We are not just training them for Microsoft or Cisco certification, but really training them more broadly in areas that are needed by the company; for example, some of the soft skills like negotiation and project management.” Much of that effort is motivated by the move toward outsourcing and related service arrangements — initiatives from the top that often leave IT employees managing the work of others rather than doing it themselves.

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