IT chiefs will hear this week how they have two years to gain new skills and change the way they are perceived by others.
Internal challenges, such as business alignment, combined with the external challenges of economic downturn, have made this a difficult and exciting time for IT leaders, the National Computing Centre will tell an audience of 100 IT chiefs tomorrow (Wednesday).
The NCC, which will formally announce the acquisition of UK user group Certus this week, said the conference will help IT directors find the new and unique set of skills, knowledge and actions they will need to survive in the current climate.
"Despite the billions of pounds spent on IT by most organisations, people remain unfulfilled," said David Taylor, president of NCC-Certus. "Universal truths, such as return on investment and alignment with the business, are never going to produce a magic answer. We hope this will be a breakthrough event with no answers, only choices."
Taylor, who ran Certus before it was acquired by the NCC in April, said the conference will play a major role in guiding the new joint organisation. "We want to gauge the feelings of the conference," he said. "By listening to the speakers we will be able to decide the agenda for the future."
The conference will hear research from analyst firm Forrester warning that the traditional IT director post will begin to disappear in two years' time.
David Metcalfe, Forrester's research director, said the traditional IT director role will be split four ways, so directors should be prepared for this change. "The chief technology officer will look after research and development; buying will be done by the chief financial officer; the chief operating officer will look after processes and decisions about applications; and a junior role, such as vice president for technology, will run the infrastructure and legacy systems," he said.
As senior business leaders have become more technology-savvy, the need for IT directors and CIOs to interpret technology has receded, Metcalfe said.
"If they see their job as entirely technology-enabled, their role is going to disappear," he said. "They need to position themselves - do they want to be a chief technical officer, or do they want more financial responsibility?"
The majority of IT directors and CIOs are from an "old school" background, having progressed through mainframe, client/server and datacentre environments, Metcalfe said.
"Fully technology-enabled businesses do not need this type of person. They want a new generation of business leaders with a deep knowledge of technology ."
While this may paint an ugly picture for those who have worked their way up the ladder, there is still hope for IT directors and CIOs, Metcalfe said.
"The job has already changed a hell of a lot in the past couple of years. Standardised technology and utility computing means there are less IT decisions for CIOs to make, so they have a more general outlook," he said. "As long as they read the writing in the sand, they have the time to position themselves."
A common bugbear among many IT directors is unwillingness by the company to give them a board position or, if they do manage to become a member, that the other members lack understanding.
Cathy Holly, director at headhunting firm Ellis Holley Maxwell, will offer tips on how to remedy this situation.
According to Holly, who recruits IT directors for leading UK firms, about 40% of UK-based IT directors have held a board position at one time or other, but the majority are unable to carry out the role to any great effect.
"IT directors and CIOs need to understand what a board member does, which is steer the company and concern themselves with everything, such as whether to open 20 new stores or to cut the workforce by 50%," she said.
"What IT directors do is sit there silently until technology is mentioned and then pipe up. This is no use. They need to have an opinion on wider issues in the same way that other board members do."
Holly said this trend is not necessarily a character fault of people with an IT background; it is more down to lack of training.
"IT directors get where they are by being the best with technology, but then they are asked to focus on shareholder value and building relationships - they do not learn this in their training," she said. "However, there are a number of forums to help with mentoring and coaching, which are no longer taboo subjects."
Despite all the changes in the role, being an IT leader still offers many opportunities to thrive, Holly said.
"Many companies are now broadening the CIO's role to include issues such as business transformation because they realise the value of IT," she said.
"Chief executives are realising that the CIO manages one of the biggest budgets and is likely to be the best at managing third party relationships. They want to start utilising these skills."
The future of the IT director
- The traditional role of the IT director or chief information officer will begin to disappear in two years. The role will be fragmented into different areas for purchasing, decision making, research and development, and running systems. IT directors will have to position themselves to adapt to these changes
- Companies are now looking for business leaders with a deep knowledge of technology rather than simply being just technology experts. IT directors will need to gain new skills in other areas of the business
- To become a member of the board, IT directors need to have an opinion on the wider issues that affect the company as a whole, rather than just the technical aspects. Coaching and mentoring can help in this area
- Companies are beginning to recognise the value of IT, so directors need to sell themselves so they can become central figures in the business.