Business Acumen – A Must Have for the New World IT Leader

Inside Intel IT we focus heavily on business partnership as an IT best practice for creating business value.  Yesterday, I was discussing the topic of IT leadership with a couple of Intel’s CIO staff members.

During this discussion I was reminded of two active discussion forums on LinkedIn that have been exploring industry opinions on what skills are required to be successful as a CIO in today’s world. Both discussion threads explore the value and importance of business vs technical acumen for IT leaders. While the discussions explore the topic from different sides, they are stimulating the same debate among participants – what makes a good IT leader? – what skills should you look for when hiring? - what experience is required for success?

During my early career as a Navy officer and engineer, it was impressed upon me to understand the functional workings of the entire engine room as well as the topside shipboard functions that I was supporting while managing the reactor plants.  Later in my career as a manufacturing supervisor and material planner, it was critical to understand the supply chain and line of business dynamics (new product introductions, promotions, new customer and distribution channels) as they impacted daily decisions on scheduling and production.  This focus on the end consumer is simply a rule of business - understanding your customer helps you deliver the highest levels of value.

So for IT professionals, I come to a similar conclusion; Business acumen is a pre-requisite for a successful IT career.  If we as technologists do not understand the business objectives, processes and user requirements, then how can we expect to enable the business with highly competitive, efficient technology solutions which add business value.

Yesterday, as we explored the techniques Intel IT staff use to align our own efforts to the business initiatives, we informally ran down some of the career backgrounds for many of the current CIO staff members - and I saw a very similar theme. Many of our IT leaders and senior engineers have worked inside Intel’s business units or had experience in business units at other companies.  The head of IT Customer Capability division worked in sales and marketing, the head of IT’s supply network capability division worked in manufacturing before IT and Diane Bryant (our CIO) came to Intel IT from Intel Architecture Group - one of Intel's core business groups.  The list went on and on.

In some cases, their career paths started in IT, moved into a business unit and returning to IT.  In other cases, IT hired them directly out of the business units.  The common thread was that each person had a diverse skill set that included both technology coupled with an integral knowledge of the business they support.

At Intel IT, we actively create a culture of development and growth for our employees.  One of these ways is by actively supporting job rotations, ongoing training and development and hiring for a breadth of diverse skills which includes business experience.  Creating an organization with a better understanding of business and our role as IT professionals to drive business value through IT innovation make us a better, healthier and stronger IT organization. This in turn enables better business solutions.

In conclusion there is a simple formula for success:
Better IT = Business Acumen + Technical Acumen = Better Business.

As chance would have it I am attending Intel IT’s annual Technical Leadership Conference today and Intel's CIO told Intel's technical leaders in the audience this morning that there are three things required for their success as well as the success of our organization, reinforcing and expanding my formula.

  1. Technical Expertise and Experience – this represents is the price of entry for IT professionals
  2. Business Acumen – this is where the big impact  is made which delights our business peers
  3. Collaboration and Partnership – working together through shared goals is what yields results

I welcome your comments and insights below.

Chris – follow me @Chris_P_Intel