John Parkinson: Why Business Schools Aren’t Turning Out Good CIO Candidates

Once a month or so, a small group of my friends and colleagues from the past 20 years get together for a one-hour conference call to discuss topics of mutual interest. Although we all met as management and technology consultants, we have diverse backgrounds and equally diverse current jobs. Our calls are wide-ranging and generally intriguing. Last week, one of us (who is now involved in postgraduate research administration) asked us to comment on the falling number of students signing up for his business school’s “MIS” major. It seems that graduate business students just don’t want to know about the internals of databases and programming languages or the mechanics of data center operations. Note that this isn’t the Computer Science department in the School of Engineering that’s making the complaint: their classes are full and doing fine. This is the “MIS Management” group in the School of Business.

Our debate on the topic was fascinating. We divided into two broad (even slightly overlapping) groups. One faction believes that the CIO should be the “Chief Information Technician” with a deep grounding in all the technical aspects of corporate IT. They argue that an IT manager’s “education” should be 80% specialist and only 20% generalist. They suggested that topics like standards, ITIL frameworks and development methods should be covered as well as a broad overview of corporate information technologies. They want their graduates to be managers who not only know what their various staff groups do but would be capable of actually doing it themselves.

The other faction believes that IT is just another production function and that line management and general management skills are more important. They want a focus on financial management, budgeting and cost management, on human resources development skills and on the processes by which IT organizations align their portfolios with the needs of the business. For them the content ratio was reversed: 80% (or more) “general” management skills, 20% (or less) IT specifics. They expected the graduates to be able to take many different paths to the CIO role and to be less information technology managers than managers who from time to time manage IT.

I tend to side with the second group: Most of my CIO friends and clients these days are business managers who currently happen to manage IT, rather than career technologists who have ascended to the role, a trend I have seen accelerate over the past ten years. But I did ask the group a related (and to my mind critical) question: What is the career model for the people who are graduating from the “MIS management” major? What’s their first job going to be? What should they know that will make them employable? My CIO friends often complain that they can’t get enough “deep” technologists and are inundated with “shallow generalists” who want to be “managers” but do not seem to understand either management or what they are being asked to manage.

Several years ago I wrote a column for CIO Insight about the critical differences between line and general management, in terms of skills and abilities required. Good line managers can quickly acquire enough domain knowledge to understand the questions they should be asking and to detect when the answers don’t make sense. That’s what lets them switch from function to function within the business over time, swapping specific domain knowledge as they go but applying common management principles everywhere. General managers do this too, just faster and without needing to replace one set of specifics with another. It seems, however, that our business schools aren’t doing enough to equip their graduates for either role.

So what should the CIO know? What’s the right educational “load” for business graduates that would let them be effective technology managers? After all, technology, particularly information and communications technology, is so central to a successful global business today that it’s arguable that all managers should have a thorough grounding in what’s possible, what’s reasonable and where the trends in business technology are taking us. At the very least this would make them better buyers of technology-based solutions and less susceptible to vendor hype.

This is the curriculum design I don’t see enough of, even at the top-tier business schools that are turning out the next generation of entrepreneurial CEOs, investment bankers and business strategists. At the second- and third-tier schools that educate the majority of tomorrow’s managers, it’s even less visible, potentially creating a long-term competitive disadvantage for our economy. Part of the problem seems to be with faculty who teach what they know rather than what’s needed to equip their students for tomorrow. Partly it’s the lack of a relevant “career vision” that could enable the students to describe what they want to learn, both now and later. And partly it’s a reflection of the chronic underinvestment in “professional” job training: Why do we try to teach everything at the start of a career, when the students can’t possibly make immediate use of everything they are being exposed to and may not get to some of the critical issues for decades?

If IT has truly become a mature production function within corporations, all this may not matter (the Nicholas Carr thesis). While I do see IT maturing, I do not see the continuing evolution of new possibilities ending any time soon. The next generation of IT managers will have a whole new set of operational and strategic challenges to face, some specific to technology, many common to all management roles: Continuing globalization of business; internationalization of trade; smarter consumers with more channel and sourcing choices; shorter product cycles; complex portfolios of products and services; strategic sourcing dynamics; uncertain raw material and energy costs. Sooner or later, all of these challenges (and more) will require sophisticated technologies to help managers be successful.

It seems to me that we aren’t equipping our management graduates with the skills to see the possible solutions, and hence to continue to be able to compete and partner with the new commercial landscapes around the world. And that’s going to be a problem for the future CIO and everyone else.

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