Law firm management shake-up merges IT and business strategies at board level

IT directors are being given board-level responsibility as they leave their old roles behind.

IT directors are being given board-level responsibility as they leave their old roles behind.

A boardroom reshuffle at UK law firm Irwin Mitchell has given a new twist to the debate on the changing role of the IT director.

Irwin Mitchell, which has around 2,000 staff in the UK, has merged the role of IT director into the role of the director of business systems.

The day-to-day running of the IT department has been delegated to a more junior IT manager. Richard Hodkinson, the former IT director, now has board-level responsibility for the firm's business operations as well as retaining overall responsibility for IT. This role is also known as the chief operating officer in other companies.

In his new role Hodkinson will ensure that all aspects of the business - finance, marketing, IT and legal services - run smoothly and efficiently.

Hodkinson, who was IT director at the firm for eight years, said that because technology underpins most parts of a business, his experience as IT director meant he was well qualified to run business operations.

"I understand how our business ticks, how people, systems and politics interact and how we can compete in our market as it changes," he said.

"Over the past three years I have become increasingly involved in areas other than IT, such as marketing and strategy. The call centre used to be the switchboard and the responsibility of the company secretary. It moved over to IT, where it was changed into a call centre with nearly 40 staff.

"Client care also moved from the human resources department to IT. The processes and procedures fitted better with the IT department."

Irwin Mitchell's reorganisation highlighted the changing role of the IT director within organisations. In September, supermarket chain Somerfield abolished its IT director role and split the departing IT chief's responsibilities between a business systems executive and a systems development manager.

David Metcalfe, research director at analyst Forrester, has said the IT department and the IT director role should be split four ways, with board members taking responsibility for different elements.

Under this model, the finance director would handle IT procurement and the chief operating officer would be responsible for application development. The vice-president for technology is in charge of IT production systems. The most senior IT director role would be the chief technology officer, who would keep an eye on blue sky IT and pass projects on to the chief operating officer when they are ready for implementation.

Critics have argued that board directors lack the technical understanding to assume responsibility for IT, and that breaking up the IT department would cause confusion across the business.

Chris Young, former managing director at the IT executive development network the Impact Group, said for many companies it made sense to appoint a director who is responsible for business operations and IT.

"In a lot of professional services organisations you cannot separate IT from operations - you need to make technology, processes and people work together," he said.

"Whether you call someone head of technology or operations or process is academic - they will still need to integrate IT strategy, corporate strategy and business change."

Tips on climbing the IT career ladder       

  • Get on the board first as it is much easier to get yourself noticed there. Even if you are not able to get on the board, get involved in as many multidisciplinary projects as you can.,

  • Be seen to be taking the lead. Look for opportunities and innovative ways to contribute to the business

  • IT people are good project managers - develop a "can do" reputation, and deliver

  • Educate yourself about your sector so you know what your company's threats and opportunities are

  • Lose the IT jargon, especially with clients or customers

  • Project your personality - make your points quickly and acutely to convince others of your competence

  • Free yourself from day-to-day IT by appointing an IT manager to run the IT department.

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