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■“Do modern chief executives need an IT pedigree?”

■The traditional fast track route for those destined for the top slot is via finance and/or sales. The IT department appears to be located at the end of a bridleway that meanders through the woodlands that adjoin the fast track to business leadership. So it doesn’t show up on the CEO succession planning roadmap.

But is a stint in the IT department more critical than the CEO-to-be doing a tour of duty with the in-house catering corps? There would be no dilemma here if undercooked sausages had brought down Enron. But catering is rarely regarded as a boardroom agenda item because it is neither perceived as risky nor shareholder value generating.

Interestingly this is the same argument that many boardroom leaders use for justifying their inattention to IT, treating it as a “black box” which will eventually go the way of other infrastructure utilities(eg. electricity and telephony) and be outsourced. So it is not surprising that this detached perspective is the norm.

Just in case you subscribe to the “IT doesn’t matter” school of thought, it might be worth pointing out that:
■ Your IT department is probably in worse shape than you think (and unlike catering, IT is a pubescent industry. It may look physically grownup, but it isn’t).
■ Your IT department is your best insurance policy for keeping out of prison.

If you don’t buy this, then presumably your accounts department uses mechanical tabulators at the end of each quarter to compile financial reports. The accuracy of these figures is correlated to your liberty.

So given that IT does matter quite a bit, it would make sense for it to be managed, or even have some parental leadership applied to it. CIOs are told to “stay in their playpens” during board meetings by most CFOs. And no amount of whimpering will get the board’s attention.

Consequently many agenda items are “resolved” without proper consideration of IT’s contribution. Hence IT is again perceived as unimportant. Given that every business event triggers an IT process at some point, this lack of attention might be considered fiduciary irresponsibility.

So given the importance of IT to corporate governance, among other things, it makes sense that the CEO “has a clue” about IT. Commercial IT wisdom requires donning a flak jacket and clocking up some “flying hours” in the IT department.

The HR department has a role in weaving IT department exposure into executive development. CEOs need to understand what technology can and cannot do for the business and so develop empathy with the IT department. Once the CEO “gets IT”, the rest of the business will follow.

Ade McCormack (ade@auridian.com) is an IT-value consultant and author of ‘IT Demystified – The IT handbook for business professionals,’ from www.auridian.com/book

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