Education and experience: is there an ideal mix for becoming a CIO?

By Dawinderpal Sahota
18 Feb 2011 View Comments

Many IT professionals see themselves as chief information officers (CIOs) in the making, but how should they go about realising this ambition, and what, for that matter, does the role require anyway?

The trouble budding CIOs face is that there is no clear career path in terms of either education or experience, compared with high-profile positions in disciplines such as law or medicine.

Further reading

The duties and responsibilities of the CIO are varied. Job site put together a typical CIO job spec for Computing that outlines key competencies, based on the CIO roles that it has advertised.

These competencies include knowledge of strategic planning and business operations, demonstrable experience of managing outsourced arrangements, project management, disaster recovery, planning, budgeting and in-depth knowledge of business modelling. So where do you pick up these key skills?

Many people would naturally think that studying for an MBA would give a technically minded person the business skills that they need to succeed, but this is only of limited use, according to some experts.

David Chan, director of the Centre for Information Leadership at City University London is a former CIO who held roles at the BBC and Razorfish, among other firms.

"I was a CIO, I did an MBA and actually all it did was to help me to understand the language my other functional colleagues were talking about but it didn't contribute more than what I learned on the job," he says.

"The skills I learned that really helped me as a CIO were the skills I learned as a management consultant."

Kevin Streater, executive director for IT and telecoms at the Open University, agrees, saying that an MBA is useful, but not essential.

"An MBA will prepare students in some respects, but it is not orientated towards the actual competency that a CIO needs. You don't need to do a full MBA to get started being a CIO," he says.

In fact, you can become a CIO without having to pursue a formal postgraduate education at all. Group CIO at managed services provider Claranet, Ian Finlay, says he gained the skills he needed on the job, by working his way up in organisations such as Interoute Communications and ControlCircle.

"I think there are two ways to approach the journey to CIO. There's the formal education approach, but rather than go down that track, I've had experience around different parts of the business," he says.

He adds that gaining an MBA often requires a lot of time spent away from the office studying, which may not be as beneficial as time spent on the job.

"I like delivering, I like doing stuff and I've been fortunate to grow in organisations and move around them and gain experience in each of them," he says.

"And when you're in that role, you don't have time to think about it, you just have to know enough about what you're doing to get the job done right. You don't have to think about everything theoretically – there is no time for intellectualising."

He acknowledges, however, that formal postgraduate education could be more important for some, depending on the kind of organisation they want to work in.

Certain sectors such as the financial, insurance or energy industries attach particular significance to formal and specialist education.

But is there any education stream that will really help equip an IT professional with the skills and knowledge they need to become a CIO?

City University and the Open University both claim to be bucking the trend of offering courses that only provide theory and academic value, but do not equip students with the skills needed in the real world.

"Business schools and universities are not offering the education in leadership for the role of CIO," says City's Chan.

"There is only one course offered in the UK that prepares students for the role of CIO, which is Masters of Information Leadership course that is being offered by City University."

He says that the postgraduate degree is taught by CIOs and experts in the field, as well as lecturers from the university's informatics and IT departments, business school and social sciences school.

Open University's Streater says that the OU's own distance-learning framework is also very beneficial to aspiring CIOs.

The university has devised a framework of recommended modules from its MBA, MSc and Open Masters programmes to help workers get the skills they need to progress to board level.

"If you really wanted to become a CIO, you could look at the courses we're offering and build your own career path up to that level," says Streater.

"So many people that I've spoken to across the industry have said, 'That's what I'm looking for'. They know the destination they'd like to get to, but they just don't know how to get there."

Streater adds that he knows the team at City University and regards the two courses as being complementary.

"You need a really intensive education to take you from [being a novice] CIO to a top-class CIO – and that's where City's course is useful. It's very niche, very specialist and is really suited for the high elite audience," says Streater.

"We're at the other end of the scale, saying that if you're a developer, how do you become the CIO? The two courses actually complement each other and we're very aware of what each other is doing."


Do you work for a university that offers courses that could be useful to an aspiring CIO or have you studied a course that was beneficial in your efforts to attain a CIO role? We're keen to hear from you – email:


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