CIOs and IT employees need to focus on business expertise as well as IT knowledge, a new Gartner study has said.

Two of three companies aim to grow faster than their markets this year, making it more important than ever for IT heads to shift their priorities to encompass business objectives, according to the survey.

CIOs who do will differentiate themselves, and their enterprise IT departments, and lead an emerging trend towards greater business skills and acumen, said Mark McDonald, group vice president and head of research for Gartner’s executive programme, EXP. Gartner has questioned more than 1,400 CIOs were worldwide for the annual study since 2002.

The analyst identified four strategies that CIOs should pursue: technical excellence; enterprise agility; information effectiveness; and innovation. The third strategy involves using analytics and applying information to how business decisions are made, rather than how information is moved around a company's computer systems. Companies that "look at [information] as a resource as opposed to an asset to be managed had significantly better performance," McDonald said.

The survey found 86% of respondents identify innovation as critical to success, but only 26% said innovation processes are sufficient to achieve goals. Although a corporate environment or culture that does not encourage innovation was flagged as the number-one roadblock, the survey found that among those who said that innovation processes are sufficient, corporate culture wasn't mentioned.

Rather, those companies that approach innovation as a "structured process" generate results. And those that also have "technology effectiveness," with IT departments that operate at "a service level" keep costs under control.

Successful CIOs understand that "business knowledge has to become the highest common denominator across the IT shop," said McDonald. That presents a challenge for some companies where the IT department focus is more on technical expertise.

"My coder should know how my company makes money regardless of the work they do," he said. Ensuring that means "you have to change the source of new recruits".

More than 70% of CIOs anticipate they will hire new employees from IT shops at other companies rather than "tapping into the reservoir of talent within their own businesses." Recruiting from other IT departments means you wind up with "more of the same rather than someone who is different," he said.

CIOs also need to focus on training for employees they already have, to help them develop heightened business acumen.

Overall, Gartner finds that CIOs need to focus on "the next big round number" and develop a vision for 2010. The last such focus was in 2000 when "everybody was kind of willing to celebrate, but they were celebrating and laying out grand strategies with an eye over their shoulders because they weren't sure if their systems were going to collapse," he said. CIOs who don't look to 2010 and communicate a vision for their departments will find that others do that for them, McDonald said.