Project Management in Practice

Beyond the alphabet soup of PRINCE2, MSP, MoP, PMBOK, ITIL, Agile

Do managers need technical background?


Do-managers-need-technical-backgroundCouple of years ago I wrote a post on whether managers needed technical background to be successful. That article had a specific focus on project management. I have recently been thinking about the same topic on a slightly different context.

I recently embarked on an Executive MBA. The first paper I’m taking for the course is Accounting. The aim of the paper is not to turn managers into accountants, but to enable them to make sense of accounts, the information these give and what can be used to make management decisions. My study group contains an executive from local government, a consultant that works with ministers and mayors, a statistical analyst from a government department. I manage part of an IT professional services consultancy. We all seem to have forged successful careers which require interpretation and forecasting of financial information without being accountants. So I wondered important is domain knowledge really?

You can argue that we have taken up MBA precisely because we may have realised there is a gap in our expertise. There is an element of truth to that. Let’s explore this further. Most professional careers will require you to have some sort of qualification. Whoever is the team leader in that setting is one that is appointed on the basis of their experience and/or expertise in that area. It can be helpful in the next step up to managing business units as well. Once you get to group / divisional level usually domain knowledge is less helpful. You require expertise in other areas of business to be successful. Executives in your business may have little or no knowledge of the particular domain area, but they will usually bring significant strategy and business knowledge.

There are different skills required in different areas of management. Can you effectively devise strategy if you had no domain knowledge of the business. The answer is no. This is where senior managers use domain expertise to bounce ideas off, find what is feasible and risks and rewards of various approaches. Senior managers are judged by their ability to understand the totality of a business and impact of choices that get best outcome for the enterprise.

This need to get away from the details at certain levels is why many brilliant technical staff do not necessarily make great managers. Those that wish to move up the chain will at some point have to give up their control of specific areas they look after (be it engineering, software development, teaching) and trust others to provide the expertise and spend the time understanding the business as a whole. This is not an easy thing to let go of.

So my conclusion today is slightly modified from the one I had made a couple of years ago. Managers with domain knowledge is only useful up to a certain level in the organisation.

Do-managers-need-technical-background

Photo image credit: elandcables.com

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2 responses to “Do managers need technical background?

  1. David Lowe March 16, 2014 at 8:18 am

    I concur. As one moves up the ranks, there is an increasing requirement to broaden the breadth of your organizational know-how. The specific domain knowledge is still important to a degree because one might find the knowledge useful for analysis or just knowing how certain things work. For an organizational leader, I think it’s all about having both the necessary breadth and depth for a balanced perspective.

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