Boardroom commitment vital to put IT at the heart of recovery

For most CIOs, the dream of a “greenfield” site for building IT systems disappeared long ago. The complexity of legacy IT systems means the opportunities for a clean slate and a complete update of technology infrastructure are very rare.

So, many IT leaders will look to Gatwick CIO Stuart Birrell with a touch of professional envy, for that is pretty much the task he faces in overhauling the airport’s IT.

Some 131 systems need to be replaced or upgraded as Gatwick’s new owners put technology at the heart of competing with Heathrow to become the premier London flight hub. For any CIO motivated by managing change and delivering innovation, it would be a great job.

Gatwick’s former owner BAA clearly recognises the threat and last year launched an enormous project to update Heathrow’s IT.

But the reality is that most IT managers have to make do with what they have and look at how to develop their legacy systems to support and improve their operation. Even a relatively young company such as mobile network operator O2 has managed to build up a complex infrastructure of applications.

O2’s IT development historically followed a path that would be familiar to many, with new systems springing up and inevitable duplication of effort.

But the emergence of new techniques, and in particular service-oriented architecture (SOA), offers a way to smooth that migration from legacy to a flexible, agile infrastructure. A lot of IT organisations have dabbled with SOA with varying degrees of success, but O2’s strong board-level commitment and architectural discipline have shown how modern development methods can make IT better support modern businesses.

As the UK emerges cautiously from recession and IT leaders are looking at ways to improve competitiveness, a key success factor will be that commitment from the top of the organisation. Whether it is a technology overhaul such as at Gatwick, or IT innovation such as O2, the boardrooms that support their IT department will take a leading role in economic recovery.