Every IT department recognises the need to develop its technical skills base on an ongoing basis. However, the perennial business and IT alignment gap suggests they are less adept at developing the skills required to thrive in the context of their particular organisation.
According to Joe Peppard, professor of information systems at the Cranfield School of Management, this becomes obvious when a career technologist makes the leap to CIO and struggles to provide the leadership that is expected of them.
He points to a 2007 study by the Society of Information Management, which found that fewer than 50% of companies formally develop leadership skills in IT staff.
For a new CIO, the move into strategy and leadership can be uncomfortable, he says. “Having spent their career in a very prescriptive environment, where if something’s not working there’s a reason, suddenly there is no rule book,” he says.
“Even though they might be appointed as IT director, where they are expected to contribute to strategy and leadership, a lot of them revert to a technical role because they are comfortable as a technologist.”
Peppard runs Cranfield’s IT leadership training programme, which helps CIOs and aspiring CIOs to develop their softer skills – or as Peppard describes them, “even harder skills”. This includes helping them identify the learning styles and professional objectives of their colleagues, and tailoring their communications accordingly.
He reports that few CIOs think about developing leadership skills within their organisation. “They tend not to spend a lot of time developing great leaders in their team,” he says. “They often think that it’s enough to spend a couple of hours a week with their leadership team, but we would advocate spending a lot of more time than that.”
Sitting at the top of the IT tree means you no longer have peers or superiors to learn from. That is why Richard Harris, who took his first CIO role when he joined chip designer ARM Holdings in 2010, has set up a network for CIOs in the Cambridge area.
“It’s a great opportunity for me personally to go and meet some more experienced CIOs who may well be sharing similar problems to those I may be experiencing,” he explains.
One of the key principles of the ‘learning organisation’ theory discussed in this month’s cover feature is that every employee must take responsibility for their own learning and development. Far from removing the need to learn, reaching the CIO position reinforces it, as your actions set the tone and culture of the IT department.