Are you a necessary evil? asks pensions IT director

IT directors need to gauge whether their department is viewed as an equal partner or a "necessary evil" to win hearts and minds...

IT directors need to gauge whether their department is viewed as an equal partner or a "necessary evil" to win hearts and minds in an organisation, according to Malcolm Whitehouse, head of IT strategy at the Department for Work and Pensions, speaking at the IT Directors' Forum.

Other steps to secure support include deciding what is important in feedback from staff and being able to talk in terms that business leaders can understand.

"Do you know your audience and how people in your business perceive you?" asked Whitehouse.

The IT department's position within the business can be placed under different categories, such as a strategic partner, necessary evil, or a cost overhead, and IT directors need to plan their strategy to reflect this, he added.

Whitehouse, who was previously responsible for e-business services at insurance company Royal & Sun Alliance, stressed the importance of "internal PR" for the IT department and the need to maintain a consistent message about IT to the business.

Explaining the goals of the IT department to business managers is often better done face-to-face rather than in a lengthy document strewn with "techno babble", said Whitehouse.

Another challenge for IT decision-makers is in distinguishing inevitable grumbles from valid concerns about end-users having to use, for instance, standard applications.

Malcolm, who joined the DWP about one year ago, is currently reviewing the DWP's IT strategy. The review comes against a background of far-reaching change in the civil service. This year's Budget outlined plans for a 30,000 reduction in the DWP's staff and chancellor Gordon Brown has said that IT will help with this and deliver efficiency savings.

Aside from improving the performance of the Child Support Agency's system, whose main IT supplier is EDS, the DWP has a number of large IT projects under way.

These include rolling out an IP network over the next three years to improve internal communication at the DWP and designing a new layer of software to help the department's staff calculate complex benefit entitlements.

The IP network, which is thought to be worth more than £200m, is being installed in partnership with EDS and BT Syntegra. The DWP and its suppliers are currently installing an "integration backbone" using IBM's Websphere middleware software, said Whitehouse.

The project to write business rules into the systems used by benefit advisers costs about £10m and might use neural network technology, added Whitehouse.

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