CIO Folder: The generalist is now top rank

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3 August 2017 | 0

Despite all of our protestations and moves towards social equality, in business and in administration and in all walks of life, rank still rates. In society, it is no longer simply the aristocracy although the upper class by birth still thrive in countries with monarchs and/or a long history of nobility. France and Austria are republics with Presidents but their Who’s Who lists are still dominated by the upper classes. But throughout history, wealth has been paramount. It is the foundation of aristocracy, aged gently in castles and chateaux. Trade wealth was to be disguised while prize money or plunder (so long as it occurred a while ago and far away) was more respectable.

Potential wealth
Nowadays, wealth is all. In most societies. Witness the USA. Oligarchs and banking barons and property developers have overtaken the merchant princes and although show biz is not an entirely new phenomenon, the potential wealth is indeed.

“The rank gives authority, a place at the top planning and decision table. It also gives the right to have and express opinions and judgements across a wide range of the organisation’s policies, plans, operations and activities”

But rank rules also in the working world of business and other organisations, very much including state agencies and those, like many European giants of aerospace and energy and military supply, that are really state-sponsored cousins. The aristocrats of the boardroom are directors of multiple enterprises and organisations, in fairness usually those who have been highly successful and experienced in their own careers.

The salient point is that however level and broad the management structure and culture in the organisation, at the top levels rank always matters. Consensus or majority is often the modern way of making strategic and practical decisions, but that in turn is strongly influenced by the respect in which the principal proponents are held. That in turn is inseparable from rank.

Rank is power
Every junior and new employee understands that rank is power. As we climb the ranks, we realise that power in the organisation is seldom wielded as nakedly as ‘I say do and he doth’. Political correctness—and civility and social regard for personal dignity—are the apparent characteristics of modern employment. We all know that they slip, and frequently, but at least the veneer of civility and ‘correctness’ is the general—and legal—norm.

But rank is rank. That is why it was so significant that the CIO made the C-suite. There has been a lot of soft-soaping around it but the key point was that it conferred new authority and power on the IT leader. The constant comparison is military, because from the dawn of history that is where rank and authority are most clearly defined. Not that modern military ranks are all that transparent to the general public. Did you know that a Lieutenant General outranks a Major General? The rank nomenclature reverses when you pass Colonel, so in fact simple ‘General’ is the highest.

So the proper rank for our CIOs is the equivalent of General. Which is entirely appropriate, since both are also by definition ‘generalists’. A military general, whatever the previous service record that earned the promotion, is always the leader of a mix of military specialisations. The experience and rank enables good strategic decision making and the position supersedes the specific disciplines that led to it.

Exactly as in the CIO job. The rank gives authority, a place at the top planning and decision table. It also gives the right to have and express opinions and judgements across a wide range of the organisation’s policies, plans, operations and activities. The fact that such contributions come from an IT background and perspective of course deepens the value when technology is relevant, just as financial or marketing experience does in other matters. But it by no means diminishes the value when there is debate amongst peers about anything that matters to the organisation and its management. In a properly joined-up modern organisation, everything relates to everything else—and today IT is pertinent to almost everything.

This is precisely where the CIO becomes both a General in authority and a valuable generalist in the ranks of senior management. The value and contribution of any individual CIO is always a combination of knowledge and understanding across the breadth of IT, experience and judgement, very often complemented by specific domain knowledge.

After that, it is open. Age does not matter, for example. Given a good range of experience and personal drive, a CIO in her/his early 30s would not be all that strange. Unusual in larger organisations, perhaps, but in young, thrusting businesses it might even be more appropriate if that is the common age bracket of the leaders. A financial institution might seek a more mature vintage, but that in turn would be appropriate for the milieu.

To continue the military comparison, Napoleon became a general at 24 after his success at the battle of Toulon. His professional training was in artillery, but as all Europe knows, command broadened his experience and he had all the talents. That is at least one of the reasons why rank is important in the case of CIOs. The decisions—and the lessons from them—are at a higher level. Mistakes and unforeseen consequences happen all the time in all walks of life. But at senior management level they contribute to the sum of experience and practical knowledge while at more junior levels they are dismissed or forgotten relatively quickly, as indeed may be the individuals responsible. That is not to say there are not arrogant asses in senior ranks in any organisation, but that’s human life.

Through line
The CIO aka IT General as generalist is the through line. The sheer range and variety of possible questions, decisions and challenges is vast. With worldwide cyber-attacks in the news regularly these days, data security is almost top of the list in many sectors. Cloud vs. on-premise is still a constant debate that waxes and wanes almost in accordance with the media headlines (not always in the popular media). Mobility is now a fundamental requirement for almost all organisations and certainly all businesses.

The core of it all, the actual ‘computing’, is in constant progress so even SMEs with more advanced requirements are looking at (and buying) hyperconverged and ever more powerful and faster data processing. Networking is equally important in some sectors, for example market trading companies with competitive capabilities measured in nanoseconds. Creative businesses like film graphics production companies, especially CGI, and games/gaming producers are literally eating up everything new that adds performance or pixels to their work.

In the meantime, everybody in business today much less IT has to have a grasp of data analytics. That goes from appreciating the key points about alternative products in making a choice of off-the-shelf automated programs for the business to taking management responsibility for cross-disciplinary analytics teams in major institutions. There are other looming and important lines of development in IT and technology generally such as robotics, autonomous vehicles (land, air and sea) and the Internet of Things that will be key to many sectors. Not to mention the things that are partly visible but really just over the horizon with the promise of magic, such as Artificial Intelligence and augmented reality.

So in any organisation, who is responsible for looking out and forward for opportunity? The CIO is the obvious leader with a 360 degree view of the technology horizon as a generalist. That is by no means to ignore the fact that the prime responsibility is to be the General, leading the IT functions in the organisation. But the CIO General with the authority of rank also needs to be a generalist, in character and disposition as well as in knowledge. The universe of IT today is constantly expanding and too diverse for specialists to lead outside of their own areas. We are in an age of generalists as leaders and although we are talking about the CIO in truth it applies also to the CEO and across the C-suite.



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