Does the business value your IT department?

The importance of e-business now promises to boost the credibility of the IT manager. Caroline Davis and Robert Dunt reports

The importance of e-business now promises to boost the credibility of the IT manager. Caroline Davis and Robert Dunt reports

Information technology departments are increasingly in the limelight. Where once they were sidelined from major business decisions and relegated to a support role, the transformation taking place surrounding the Internet is making IT crucial to business success.

Every company must have a dotcom strategy, to keep its shareholders happy if nothing else. And a top-notch IT department is vital if this is to be successful.

In recent months, Computer Weekly has reported how the Kingfisher Group, which owns Comet, Woolworths and Superdrug, has put IT at the centre of its e-business transformation. We also revealed how Barclays is revolutionising its business on a similar scale. Likewise, in the public sector IT is at the centre of change, with a flurry of soundbites from ministers.

But has the image of IT changed that much? Has the e-business agenda done enough to help IT departments shake off their nerdy image and become a truly valued part of the business?

To find out, Computer Weekly decided to ask IT management across a broad range of industry sectors.

Retail and distribution

One IT manager working in the automotive retail and distribution sector felt that IT has achieved a higher status due to the advent of the Internet.

"The value of IT in the company has increased over the past year following competition from the Internet and European importation of cars," he said.

"The department has begun to be seen as contributing directly due to an effective Web site. Although I don't make e-business decisions, IT will drive the business more and more. Our financial director firmly believes in IT because he's seen it work in previous companies.

"Morale is good. There are huge changes going on in the car business where manufacturers can deal direct with anyone. We have to create systems to meet these demands. We're working at the forefront of technology. People are continually learning, which keeps them happy.

"Traditionally, there was a clear dividing line, IT was seen as a supplier of information. But with the Internet, IT steps on everyone's toes. Sometimes I think it is perceived as a threat, but there are enough people who know about both the business and IT - they can see the real value."

The reputation of IT is changing across the retail sector. Another IT manager who has a string of high-street shops said that his opinion on whether his department's work was valued had changed.

"We've recently undergone a restructuring of the department and in the past the answer would have been 'no', but now I get the impression that peopleare responding to us better."

He said that restructuring meant the different parts of the company now communicated better with each other and had more of an idea of what each other was doing and where the company as a whole was going.

Nevertheless, he said that his company could still not see how the IT department contributed to the bottom-line. He put this down to the fact that people were often confused by the technical jargon the department used.

"You sit there and watch people's eyes glaze over if you go into the technical details. At the end of the day, they come and ask for solutions and nine times out of 10 all they're interested in is the end result. They don't appreciate the work that's gone in to that," he pointed out.

Finance

IT is becoming more and more valued in financial companies, IT managers said.

"The IT department is very much valued, it's seen as an important part of the business. IT is represented at a senior business level and at the corporate level," one senior manger said.

"The skills shortage has affected us, particularly in recruiting people with Java and Lotus Notes skills," he added.

Another manager felt that although his department is generally listened to, a lack of consultation sometimes resulted in poor decisions being made.

"I feel we are an integral part of the company and I am consulted, although there are exceptions," said one senior IT manager from a large insurance company.

He said that too often decisions were made without proper consultation and a better decision could have been made if the IT department had been contacted first.

"It's not every time but it happens from time to time," he added.

Manufacturing

In the past 18 to 24 months, IT has definitely moved to the forefront of decision-making, according to IT heads in manufacturing.

"Recent changes in the organisation have reflected the value and contribution that IT can make, for example, getting the best out of enterprise resource planning, e-commerce and knowledge management," he said.

"We've had a radical re-organisation, to get an IT infrastructure and reorganise support on a local basis. It's organised so that support is regionalised; the IT department is adding to the business, it's no longer seen as an obstruction. Now IT managers have a say in the business direction of the company - a recent board meeting was very IT-focused."

Construction

It is a very different story in the construction industry.

IT managers said that staff felt undervalued and that board members were unable to see what the IT department was contributing to the company.

A business systems development manager for a large construction company said that he thought his IT staff felt "undervalued and under pressure".

He said board members did not understand what the IT department could bring to the business and consequently it was under pressure to start delivering.

The department had just been reorganised as managers felt it was not visibly contributing to the bottom line of the company.

He explained that he had been brought in from the construction side of the company to try to make the department more business-orientated.

Public sector

In the public sector, IT managers felt that their opinions were more highly valued now that the Government is emphasising technology through its Modernising Government agenda.

"Do I think I feel valued? Yes. In fact, increasingly so," said the head of IS/IT services at a large county council. He said that councillors were switching on to technology and wanted IT moved into their homes for mailing and messaging, and that the IT budget had been increased for the year.

He pointed out that much of this was because of the Government's desire for modernisation and its backing of e-commerce initiatives.

But he said that councillors still found it difficult to see the financial benefits of his department. "It's difficult to get across to people that what we do saves money.

"If you say we're dealing with three to four times as many queries a day as we used to, is that a saving or not?"

"We've had some wonderful debates about that," he added.

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