You don’t have to have worked in or around IT for very long to be familiar with the perennial battle cry of CIOs across the industry calling for greater integration between the IT department and the board. If you’re sighing already, stick with me – a real solution rather than echoed sentiments is needed now more than ever before.
To better understand why IT is still so often kept at arm’s length from the rest of the business, we need to look at what preoccupies most board-level executives. The break-fix perception of IT has changed, to the extent where boards no longer see it as a cost centre now; it’s an acknowledged business enabler. But while this perception shift represents an opportunity for the IT team to move closer toward the board-level influence it has long craved, many are failing to take advantage of the change in boardroom attitudes.
While the IT estate is clearly the responsibility of the IT department, the success or failure of the business at large is the responsibility of everyone in the organisation. That includes the IT team: from CIO to helpdesk agent. Despite this, the average IT department is more pre-occupied with the shortage of technology skills in the industry than worrying about what goes on beyond the server room. However, our most recent annual CIO survey showed encouraging signs; nearly half of the CIOs we talked to were already board members in their firms, which suggests that strong integration between the IT team and wider board is already being established.
To be candid, the average, newly-appointed CIO quickly learns that their team does a poor job of engaging with the business they work in. Once they have the financial director’s ear, and are privy to the perceptions the business has of the IT function, the smart CIOs realise that their biggest headache is not the shortage of IT skills in the department, it is the shortage of soft business skills that board-level executives are increasingly looking for in their technical staff. As a recruiter, I can tell you that client handling and influencing skills now have a premium on them, even more so than specific technical attributes.
If the CIO has risen through the ranks of the IT team, or been brought in from elsewhere, and acknowledges the business shortcomings of his/her team, it is clear that the problem comes not at CIO-level. The real headaches start a couple of rungs down the ladder, at the levels where, in most firms at least, the business ethos becomes lost, the blinkers are on, and IT is very much the immediate priority.
You may be asking whether this is even important; whether the average IT staffer needs to understand the market forces that impact their business above and beyond the server room or helpdesk. Talking to the majority of companies that are recruiting staff at the moment, the answer is a resounding ‘yes’. The main reason is that the technical staff being recruited now are expected to become the CIOs of the future. But when tomorrow’s CIOs are coming from the poorly-engaged IT departments of the present, it’s clear that something needs to change, and some sectors are already addressing the problem.
In the retail industry, for example, we’re now seeing the structure of the interview processes for CIOs changing to include the requirement of candidates to spend several days on the shop floor. The aim is to get them out into stores to develop a better understanding of what requirements business processes will have on the IT function. But while this kind of initiative is promising, it’s one that too often fails to permeate below the CIO level.
The more enlightened companies in the financial services industry use technology as a tool for competitive advantage, making the investment banking and retail banking sectors better than any other in this regard. The infrastructures employed by investment banks are so heavily IT-reliant their development can only have been a product of strong collaboration and dialogue between the business and IT departments. This dialogue is taking hold; recruiters are beginning to see a trend of embedding business relationship managers – staff whose job it is to get ahead of the business and work out what technology is needed to meet future growth areas, and identify where to invest in services and infrastructure to stay ahead of the competition.
Let’s be clear, in the private sector, IT exists for one of two reasons: it either saves money through productivity, efficiency and collaborative gains; or it makes money, by delivering better quality services out to market. If it isn’t doing either of these, then what is its function? Today’s IT staffers must work out how the changing demands on them by the businesses they serve will affect their development. Professional IT qualifications are right and good, but they’re more about polishing the IT operation than engaging with the business.
In certification, like those provided by the British Computer Society, the language employed is still very technical. Businesses should seek to avoid getting bogged down in technology and think business first, technology second. As such, relationship management and people influencing skills, and commercial understanding should be a part of the training so that staff have experiential knowledge of wider business needs.
The candidates that find themselves most in demand will be those that are business-centric with a strong supplementary interest in IT, rather than IT-centric people with a passing interest in the business world. So, the solution is to re-evaluate IT staff development needs to stress business and soft skills - communications rather than code, if you like. Only then will we, as an industry, have the depth of business understanding to take advantage of the opportunity afforded by the business world’s growing recognition of the importance of IT.
John Whiting is managing director of UK IT at Harvey Nash