A Novel Approach to CIO Education

By Brian P. Watson  |  Posted 04-01-2008

A Novel Approach to CIO Education

Like some new CIOs, Jim Barton had no IT experience before taking the post at IVK Corp. Unlike all other new CIOs, Barton isn't real: He's the protagonist of an upcoming book, You Won't Last a Year: Becoming an Effective Information Technology Leader, a fictional case study by Robert Austin, chair of Harvard Business School's CIO executive program, and his predecessor, Richard Nolan, a professor at Harvard and the University of Washington's Michael G. Foster School of Business.

Austin spoke recently with online editor Brian Watson about the book's unique approach, and why IT education needs a shot in the arm. This is an edited, condensed version of their conversation.

CIO Insight: Is Jim Barton, who's a non-IT guy, the CIO of the future?

Austin: There are a certain number of CIOs coming from outside IT, but we didn't choose a CIO from the outside because we thought that was the norm. It was more of a pedagogical choice because we wanted to walk through the situation that someone without an IT background might face. We didn't want people to presume that you'd need a lot of background in IT to use this curriculum. So it was more strategic than it was a belief in some trend.

Why did you write a novel about a CIO as opposed to a textbook or a real case study?

Austin: The problem with textbooks is that they convey content without context, and you leave students not knowing how to apply what they've learned. It's like telling the end of a story without the beginning and the middle. The case method is a bit better, but it doesn't easily provide a platform for building frameworks across class sessions. So we tried to combine them. We get to walk in Barton's shoes: We watch his decision-making processes, we critique him, and we say what we would have done instead. More importantly, this approach allows us to build across sessions.

A Novel Approach to CIO Education

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Many CIOs say there are no guides for being a CIO. Are they right?

Austin: The MBA programs and generic management training programs don't deal with the peculiarities of IT, and the IT career path doesn't bridge the business discussion seriously enough. As an IT manager, you have to deal with all these business issues and IT issues that are really interwoven. Your job is to tease them apart and involve the right people in making decisions. But IT can't always separate them, and the businessperson says, "Let the techies worry about it."

A big question IT managers have to ask is, "How many necks are in the noose?" When you make a decision as a CIO, are you alone--or are the business guys in there with you? If they are, they will behave very differently when things go wrong because they'll feel responsible. If it's just your neck, they'll just yank on the noose and tighten it. This book is an approach to help distill the business and technical issues and get the right people involved.

But that doesn't always happen, does it?

Austin: Every time something goes wrong, the reflex of the CIO who came up through the IT ranks is to focus on what he knows: how to fix it. That's good, but in another way, that reflex can be deadly.

The moment something goes wrong, you should talk with your CEO and business partners. Otherwise, there's this vicious cycle in which the CEO doesn't want to talk to the CIO about the technical stuff because it makes his head hurt. And the CIO doesn't like those conversations because they're hard to explain.

And what happens then?

Austin: Their opinions of each other grow worse and worse. This happens in families, when members don't speak with each other. While they're not talking, they have worse and worse thoughts about what the other is thinking.

This is a big part of what Barton struggles with in the book. He really starts to understand his predecessor's reflex to pull back into his own domain instead of having a conversation with the CEO and senior VPs to see how everyone can make sure it won't happen again.

What about IVK--is it based on a real company?

Austin: This story is fictitious, though it's modeled on real situations we've seen, and it's as real as we could make it. But I don't want people to guess what company it is--that would be based on incorrect assumptions.

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