Top dogs

You can teach future CIOs new tricks.

Read time 4min 40sec
Rex Van Olst, Wits.
Rex Van Olst, Wits.

The Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) recently launched a CIO course, and Wits has been running one for over a decade. Given that two such illustrious institutions have course material to support the roles of IT executives, it's clear there's a specific body of knowledge that CIOs should have.

The Wits short course in CIO Practice is now in its 11th year and continues to evolve in line with industry trends, but the core structure is kept the same. It's managed by two of the university's faculties - the Faculty of Commerce Law and Management, and the Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment.

"We've kept the fundamental content common through the years and add new things as we go along, for instance, information about big data and the cloud," says associate professor Rex Van Olst, the convenor of the Wits CIO professional certificate. "Adding new things has become more of a challenge today than it was ten years ago."

The recently launched GIBS course aims to develop leadership and management skills to significantly enhance the position of the CIO or CTO in business.

"We will cover the changing nature and the role of the CIO," says Abdullah Verachia, a senior lecturer at GIBS and lead faculty on the future CIO programme. "Technology and information flow have become focal points in boardrooms across South Africa and resulted in the CIO becoming a key player in crafting business strategy."

Both courses are aimed at either CIOs who are new to the role, or employees who have been earmarked for the role in the succession pipeline.

Where do CIOs come from?

According to the Wits CIO course convenor Rex Van Olst, his course applicants come from three main backgrounds: they have an IT engineering qualification, a financial qualification (which they expanded into an interest in IT) or they come as self-taught IT professionals who have worked their way up the corporate hierarchy.
Interestingly, this mirrors the exact findings of the annual ITWeb CIO Directory, which surveys the leading CIOs in the country to learn their qualifications, current focus and predictions for the future.
Whatever their background, soon-to-be-appointed CIOs will find these courses valuable in that they offer current IT understanding alongside the necessary business strategy skills.

Neither requires prior qualification, although a degree is preferred. In the absence of a degree, applicants have to submit a body of work as evidence of their capability for this level of study.

What you need

"We prefer a degree, not because it's mandatory, but because if they haven't studied at university level, they may struggle with the coursework," says Van Olst. "We do require a minimum of three years of management in IT - we're looking for deputy CIOs, infrastructure managers or software development managers."

He says they consider applicants on a CV review, and because they don't want to set people up for failure, they turn applicants down with an invitation to reapply in a couple of years. They accept self-taught knowledge.

The Wits course is comprised of three modules: the landscape that CIOs must be aware of and manage, the management of costs as well as benefits, and strategic management and leadership.

"IT has an image of falling short on return on investment, and one way to turn that around is to ensure that CIOs are able to determine measurable benefits," says Van Olst. "To really emphasise IT benefit realisation, IT must be aligned with business."

Within five years of completing the course, most of them have gone on to become number ones or at least number twos in large organisations.

Rex Van Olst

He adds that since the start of the course, they have focused on human capital management, because any CIO is lost without their team. "The poorest skill we see in the people enrolled for the course is human capital management."

Leading CIO courses from around the world

Leading CIO courses from around the world
All around the world, learning institutions are recognising that aspirant (and in some cases, existing) CIOs need the support of targeted learning opportunities. To this end, some of the world's leading business and IT universities offer short courses similar to the ones offered by Wits and GIBS.

Stanford's Innovative CIO
Stanford runs a course called the Innovative CIO, which aims to help students create a culture of innovation to drive growth and performance, design thinking to add value to leading-edge IT and develop strategies and tactics to move their organistions forward.

MIT Sloan's Executive Certificate
This is a formal recognition of professional development, allowing students to further their business knowledge and skills on a convenient and flexible schedule. Participants must complete four programmes within four years, each of which are two days to a week in duration.

Verachia says that a number of skills that are taught by the GIBS course are lacking even in CIOs that are already performing the role. These include the ability to play a central role in the strategy discussions of the organisation, linking the role of technology to its overall impact on business growth, strategy and performance, and business acumen, providing insights into formulating business strategy and how to use technology more effectively to address organisational needs, but also identify future business opportunities.

Automatic entry

"The CIO of the future will be a key actor in the boardroom, and this course has been designed to provide the requisite management tools to assist in playing this role," he says.

While neither of these courses have the depth of research to become Master's courses, they do offer certificates of completion, and the Wits certificate gains the graduate automatic entry into the CIO Council. Van Olst estimates that around ten to 20 percent of the CIO course students go on to register for a Master's in IT management. If they didn't have a first degree, the academic planning department of Wits permits them to register.

"Within five years of completing the course, most of them have gone on to become number ones or at least number twos in large organisations, and almost 100 percent change jobs within their organisation in the first year after the course," he says.

From this cross-section of CIOs-in-waiting, Verachia believes it's possible to predict how the future CIO role will look. "We've seen the CIO role transitioning into a much more strategic C-suite level and so CIOs of the future come from diverse backgrounds and are able to merge this diverse experience to redefine the role of the CIO."

This article was first published in Brainstorm magazine. Click here to read the complete article at the Brainstorm website.

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