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In a recent CIO Connect survey of 135 senior IT leaders from FTSE 250 companies and public sector organisations, 73% of respondents said they believed existing change programmes were being “impeded or hindered in some way by a lack of necessary skills”.

One survey respondent commented: “Given the historical evidence of the last 20 years or so, I find it amazing that organisations continue to underestimate or even overlook the need for active change management alongside any major IT and/or business programme.”

In my experience organisations are increasingly looking to IT to be the engineer and architect of change.

A variety of skills are required to drive this type of programme and usually it is assumed that IT leaders are able to take the lead. However, the secret of successful change leadership is more to do with empathy and emotional intelligence than any other management skill.

So, in many ways, it is unsurprising that IT leaders feel they are failing in heading change management projects as the skills they increasingly need have never been strong elements in the make-up of the IT department’s DNA.

It was however encouraging to read that the research revealed a determination among CIOs and their senior leadership teams to tackle the situation by means of more effective change leadership and increased levels of management and staff training

Six out of ten respondents said they had already introduced new leadership in the past 12 months to help an existing change initiative move forward. And more than half (51%) said they were planning to invest in additional training over the coming year to ensure their organisations had the skills needed “to lead and/or participate fully” in future change management programmes. (By contrast, less than 4% of respondents said they were planning to reduce levels of training.)

The survey also asked IT leaders to rate their organisations’ capability levels when it came to tackling a number of specific change management challenges. Respondents cited “overcoming the restrictions of any silo-based business process” as their most problematic area, with 50% rating their capability level at the low end of the scale.

The next thorniest issues were “winning over sceptics by selling the benefits of a proposed change” (with 40% citing a low level of capability) and “communicating the nature of project changes to stakeholders” (31%). However, most IT leaders felt they were fairly capable when it came to estimating and analysing the impact and requirements of change programmes, as well as at identifying the resources and skills needed to drive these initiatives forward.

It is clear that IT leaders need to take a much fuller account of the impact of planned changes from different perspectives across the organisation if they are really able to drive change. Above all, IT leaders need to try to understand the impact of change on others. To do this effectively calls for a range of communication, collaboration, and coalition building skills, to broker, influence and instill changes in behaviour.

IT leaders will need to actively fortify their leadership skills - either through a training program or simply by recruiting or seconding people into the IT leadership team with supplementary skill sets. Softer, more social capabilities are called for, other than the analytic and project management competencies that IT is best known for.

At CIO Connect we believe there are several critical success factors for change projects and these help illustrate the types of skills needed by IT leaders if they are to play a role in driving - rather than impeding – change programmes:

  • Manage perceptions and expectations – people don't necessarily share the same beliefs in a project.
  • Project leadership and accountability are vital.
  • Pay attention to team-building and inter-team communication.
  • Fight organisational politics, or be subsumed by them.
  • Spend more time on requirements, and ensure that projects have effective business sponsorship.

The opportunity exists for IT leaders to place themselves at the heart of the organisation by successfully driving through change management programmes. But only if IT leaders continue to recognise the need to develop their teams, and their own, people management skills to ensure that programmes are a success from an organisational as well as technical point of view.

To help meet companies’ increasingly pressing need for better change management skills, CIO Connect’s sister organisation The IMPACT Programme is putting together a comprehensive Change Leadership programme which will run for the first time early next year.

CIO Connect is the UK’s largest membership organisation for CIOs and their IT teams. More information is available here