The infrastructure challenges for IT managers - by IT managers

Sometimes in the IT department, nobody can hear you scream. If your day feels a little like that, then take some reassurance that you are not alone.

Yesterday I chaired a roundtable debate organised by 360°IT – the IT infrastructure event. Around the table were IT managers from various mid-sized organisations, including financial services firms, public sector bodies and charities – a real cross section of the heartland of UK IT.

The aim of the meeting was to discuss the top infrastructure challenges faced by this important sector of the IT community and for delegates to share their experiences and hopefully learn from each others’ knowledge.

Perhaps the most notable outcome of the discussion was the agreement that, despite such varying environments and backgrounds around the table, the challenges they all face are remarkably similar. Everyone went away saying that, if nothing else, it was good to know they were not alone.

The debate was conducted under the Chatham House rule, so I can’t identify any of the contributors, but here’s a summary of their top five challenges and some of the comment they made – are these familiar issues to you? Let us know what you think by commenting at the end of this blog post.

The top five, in no particular order, were:

  • How to connect IT with the strategic priorities of the organisation
  • Communicating and marketing IT more effectively
  • Compliance, governance, metrics and risk management
  • Supplier relations
  • Technology is not the problem

How to connect IT with the strategic priorities of the organisation

One of the biggest frustrations the IT managers feel is the difficulty of aligning IT with the key priorities of their organisation – which must be one of the oldest chestnuts in technology management.

Most of the delegates had experience of a lack of joined-up thinking, and the difficulty of getting a holistic, top-down approach from the boardroom to drive IT strategy, rather than the “piecemeal” approach identified by one contributor.

One delegate highlighted the problems caused by a major outsourcing deal. To paraphrase his comments: “We outsourced because the board wanted to save money and focus on our core business. But outsourcing has removed the IT manager’s ability to adequately support the business. The outsourcing deal is driven by SLAs [service-level agreements], but they don’t take into consideration all the little things that IT used to do to help out before the people were outsourced. In the end, most of the cost savings have had to be spent on funding new initiatives that were not covered by the outsourcing contract, so the net result is no savings.”

Another issue came from demands to minimise capital expenditure (capex) and fund IT through operating expenses (opex) instead. “We even had to put our staff party on opex,” said one delegate.

Another said: “A number of major corporate projects mean there is little capex budget left for anyone. But management are loath to spend out of revenue, so IT is just expected to adapt.”

And too often, budget for new initiatives goes to “whoever shouts the loudest” because of a lack of strategic direction for IT to be able to make a business case.”It is about getting the right balance between tactical and strategic, and between being reactive and responsive,” said one IT manager.

Communicating and marketing IT more effectively to the rest of the organisation

The other side of the lack of alignment between strategy and IT is the need for the IT department to communicate better with the rest of the organisation and the boardroom.

“IT people are not naturally good at marketing themselves,” said one delegate. Another added: “We have to articulate things in a language the business understands.”

Guest speaker Denise Plumpton, the non-executive director of the 360°IT event and a former CIO in both government and industry, highlighted an example from one of her former roles, where she was able to demonstrate that giving a Blackberry to sales staff allowed them to make one extra sales call per day. The sales director, who had previously been sceptical of the technology, translated that into the number of extra calls across the sales force, the likely contract conversion rates, and on the back of an envelope proved the business case for equipping his team with handheld devices – all because the case was made in a language he understood.

Another delegate warned of the danger of IT being seen as “the ‘no’ department” – always pointing out the reasons users cannot do something, rather than how to achieve it or the implications of doing so. “IT is seen as negative to users – they think we always say what can’t be done rather than what could be done,” he said.

IT departments need to treat users as individuals, and understand their needs and how to meet those requirements, said a delegate.

Compliance, governance, metrics and risk management

One way for IT to be noticed is for anything associated with regulatory compliance.

“If it’s to do with compliance, it will happen,” said a delegate. “Compliance can drive the rest of the business to consider IT more.”

A risk management approach was highlighted as an effective way to make sure the board understands the impact of an IT business case. For example, if a business risk that could cost the company, say, one per cent of its revenue could be eliminated by better IT, that makes a compelling argument to proceed.

Agreeing metrics for measuring the value and success of IT was identified as another effective tool – especially the concept of a management dashboard of key measures – something that would also help with other challenges mentioned above, such as the relationship between IT and the organisation.

Supplier relations

One challenge that particularly animated our roundtable guests was supplier relations – with everyone highlighting problems with the key vendors they buy from. Here’s a selection of comments:

“We want flexibility from our suppliers – but they all work to SLAs.”

“What we bought is not what we wanted, but it was what the board thought we wanted.”

“There is no partnership in the relationship with suppliers.”

“We want transparency from suppliers – they need to be honest about what they can and cannot deliver.”

There was complete agreement that suppliers are too focused on products and technologies, and not enough on the real challenges that IT managers face. “They are just not on the same wavelength,” said one.

Another added: “The supplier has already won the business with us, yet it is always trying to sell more. “

The IT managers acknowledged that they as the customer must also take responsibility for what they want from suppliers, but many felt that suppliers were simply trying to sell “out of the box solutions”.

“What we want is value added after purchase, help to make it work in our environment,” said a delegate.

Technology is not the problem

In the course of nearly two hours discussion at a roundtable billed as covering IT infrastructure challenges, it was notable that technology and products were barely mentioned.

In a group of large-company CIOs, it would be expected that technology would rarely feature, but it was instructive to see that in an audience of mid-sized organisations, IT managers are also noticeably less concerned about technical issues than about business, strategy and people matters.

“Technology is not the issue, it’s about skills, training, processes,” said one delegate.

“I’m not interested in ‘stuff’,” said another. “We’ve got the stuff, what we want is to use it better.”

A similar group assembled even five years ago would, in my experience, have spent the time discussing the relative merits of the latest technology, or the “next big thing”. But products and technologies are now seen merely as the enabler, a tool that allows IT managers to contribute to the success of their organisation. That will increasingly prove to be a big step towards addressing the first two challenges highlighted above, of better aligning IT and the business, and of IT staff talking the language of the business.

It also sends out an important message to IT suppliers that their customers’ expectations of them are changing rapidly.


A similar roundtable debate is taking place on 30th March, at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in London, for CIOs and IT leaders from larger organisations to discuss and share their key issues. If you are interested in attending or finding out more details, please email [email protected] or telephone 020 8910 7845.