CIOs believe it is easier to teach a technologist about business than it is to teach a business person about technology.
The debate was sparked by silicon.com columnist and ex-CIO Rene Carayol's comments at the silicon.com CIO Forum last week that CIOs and IT directors have lost credibility in the boardroom and that CEOs would rather put a business person in charge of IT.
"There's a realisation [in the boardroom] that it is easier to teach a business person about technology than teach a technologist about business," he said.
We asked the silicon.com CIO Jury if they agreed, and the question caused some heated debate with the majority (seven) saying they disagreed and five saying 'yes' they did agree.
The statement angered Peter Dew, CIO at BOC, who even questioned whether Carayol had sufficient boardroom exposure to offer a viable perspective.
"In the boardroom we all have a 'professional background' that has enabled us to establish our career," he said. "Good business people make good business people irrespective of their professional background. IT is no different, or any more complex than other professions."
Frank Coyle, IT director at John Menzies Distribution, said he first heard Carayol's quote around 1986, two years before he joined the board. He said many IT failures are down to accountants posing as IT specialists "in order to supplement their CVs".
"Unfortunately, this trend is continuing, with MBAs seriously believing that they are businessmen with enough IT acumen to take over the IT director role. The resultant carnage is then left to the IT professionals to pick up," he said.
Kevin Lloyd, CTO at Barclays, who himself came from a technology background questioned the level of interest in technology by some business people.
"Little interest is expressed in developing real insight into technology and many still see the subject as a murky 'over there' issue with knowledge predicated on home experience of PC, which has little relevance in the corporation. I would say you'd find it easier to interpret a balance sheet than you would train someone to develop in J2EE," he said.
JP Rangaswami, global CIO at Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein, said the distinction between business people and technologists is false and that everyone needs an acute understanding of technology directions and shifts.
"I think the implications of new organisational models, new governance models, and new technology models actually bias the odds in favour of competent 'technologists', since emerging technology underpins each of those models," he said.
Others, including Colin Cobain, IT director at Tesco and Margaret Smith, director of business information systems at Legal & General, described it as a "trite statement" and said there is no simple answer as much depends on the individual and the organisation.
But one of those who supported Carayol's comment was Graham Benson, information services director and CIO at Screwfix Direct.
"If CIO's or IT Directors aspire to executive board positions, they must be business leaders first, and functional heads second," he said. "The traditionally perceived gap between IT and 'the business', which is normally perpetuated by technologists themselves, results in IT managers who are not business-savvy and therefore offer little at board level."
Follow this debate on silicon.com tomorrow when we will be publishing a full analysis on the subject based on the overwhelming number of responses and heated comments on this subject.
Today's CIO Jury was…
Graham Benson, information services director and CIO, Screwfix Direct
Colin Cobain, IT director, Tesco
Frank Coyle, IT director, John Menzies Distribution
Peter Dew, CIO, BOC
Kevin Fitzpatrick, CTO, Manpower
Phillip Jones, CTO, easyGroup
John Keeling, director of computer services, John Lewis Partnership
Kevin Lloyd, CTO, Barclays
Rob Neil, head of ICT services, Ashford Borough Council
Phil Pavitt, CIO, NTL
JP Rangaswami, global CIO, Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein
Margaret Smith, director of business information systems, Legal & General
If you are a CIO, IT director or equivalent at a large or small company in the private or public sector and want to be part of silicon.com's CIO Jury pool, or you know an IT chief who should be, then drop us a line at email@example.com