Could a secondment to the marketing department make you a better IT director?

A broad business knowledge can help when developing new projects

A broad business knowledge can help when developing new projects.

What is the key to becoming a successful IT director? Is the clich' that IT directors need to have a general understanding of business, rather than just an encyclopedic knowledge of technology, the answer?

A secondment to a business unit is certainly a worthwhile option. It has the advantage of giving an IT manager or IT director useful experience, in addition to more theoretical knowledge acquired on training courses.

Learning how to do someone else's job is an invaluable experience, and the marketing department is an ideal place for an IT manager to transfer to, not least because people working in marketing departments tend to work in different ways to IT staff.

Generally speaking, the ability to think laterally and creatively is highly prized in marketing departments, whereas IT departments require staff to think more logically and pay greater attention to detail.

A business secondment should benefit IT managers and the business. Managers would learn to look at running a business from a different perspective and build stronger working relationships with other business departments.

Being immersed in another part of the business should prove helpful to IT directors when they are developing IT projects or pitching ideas to an often sceptical board.

Handled properly, secondments should benefit the whole business. A secondment should last at least a couple of months, but it could be for up to two years. A shorter-term option is for an IT manager to sit with a company's trouble-shooting think tank.

These strategic bodies generally comprise senior management from different departments who brainstorm new ideas for the business. However, very few UK companies make the effort to give their IT management broad business experience, preferring instead to focus on their graduate intake.

To equip would-be IT leaders with the necessary grounding in business, companies should consider offering business placements to their IT staff throughout their careers.

In countries such as Japan the approach is refreshingly different. The Japanese have a principle of job rotation which ensures that most people will have had a spell in IT and that IT professionals will have spent some time working in all other disciplines.

IT personnel are usually physically located with their users while they are working on a project together. IT professionals and users work together on both problem solving, diagnosis and application design in a partnership known as "gamba".

As a result the cultural divide between Japanese IT departments and people who work elsewhere in the business appears to be less marked than in the UK.

Perhaps IT management and company boards need to look east to sharpen their business skills.

Robina Chatham is visiting fellow at Cranfield School of Management

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