As the UK's top IT directors look forward to an exhausting three-day conference on board the Oriana, we examine their changing role in business
As the cream of the UK's IT leaders pack their bags for the annual IT Directors' Forum on board the cruise ship Oriana, many could be forgiven for feeling something of an identity crisis.
Over the past few decades the role of IT director, or chief information officer, has moved away from its technician roots into the realms of boardroom politics, strategy development and a hunt for return on investment.
With corporate belt-tightening and the rise in outsourcing, IT directors are finding themselves with a slimmed-down department having to oversee a patchwork of externally delivered services from the UK and overseas.
Few other positions in senior management have seen their remit shift so markedly. And management experts believe that more change is to come.
"We are seeing IT directors coming in, for example, from manufacturing, without being trained in IT," said Joe Peppard, a senior research fellow at Cranfield School of Management who specialises in IT management issues.
However, IT directors can benefit from the collapse of traditional departmental barriers by taking on other director roles within their organisations. "We are also seeing a trend, particularly in successful companies, for the IT director to also be a director of another department. One IT director at a global reinsurance company is also head of operations and runs 80% of the company," said Peppard.
The good news for today's IT leaders is that they have more influence than ever within their organisations. Technology is now generally seen as providing a competitive advantage, and boardroom awareness of enterprise software such as customer relationship management systems has also increased.
So what skills do IT managers need to climb the career ladder?
According to Peppard, the five key attributes are:
- Leadership skills
- Vision (the confidence and skills to deploy new technology)
- Relationship-building skills
- Political skills (being able to collaborate with other directors in the company)
- The ability to deliver results.
This idealised list is a tall order for most executives, particularly for an IT manager who has come from a technical background.
"A programmer trained at college will have been been trained to follow rules and has baggage," said Peppard. "Before they become an IT manager, for example as a software developer or project manger, they have very little discretion. Then as an IT manager they realise they have lots of discretion and that there are no rules and no right answers.
"There is a big gap here and there is often a lack of management training, meaning they don't know how to operate outside the comfort zone."
IT directors agree that their role has become more focused on the business than cutting-edge technology but some argue that this has not been a recent change.
"I believe the IT director's role is to be more innovative for the business," said Douglas Ball, director of IT and data protection officer at the Prescription Pricing Authority, a specialist health authority which handles about £1bn worth of prescriptions a year. "It is not about waiting for someone to say, for example, that they want to go to market faster so can you give them some web technology - you have to suggest it to them.
"You have to prove your business-focused skills set to the board by making the chief executive look good or by improving shareholder value. It is not about saying you have a good SAP or PeopleSoft system."
As well as the shifting role of the IT chief, other hot topics at this year's IT Director's Forum, which start on 14 May, are likely to include offshore outsourcing, open source operating systems, and when IT spending will bounce back.
For IT directors attending last year's conference, outsourcing, their relationship with the board, systems integration, and value for money were the most pressing issues.
For more about the forum go to www.itdf.com
The three ages of IT
The mainframe age 1960s-1970s
In the early days of business computing IT was viewed by business executives as an automation tool and a way to cut costs. IT managers, wandering between large mainframe-packed rooms, advised business managers on how to carry out tasks. IT bosses occupied a development and support role with little room for shaping company strategy.
The distributed era 1980s
In the 1980s the spread of PCs and networks revolutionised the IT industry. IT managers gained more boardroom influence but their remit was still limited. Many IT heads were known as data processing managers and reported to the finance director. Their role was to provide IT infrastructure and manage systems and suppliers.
The web era 1990s to present
IT is now seen as strategic part of the business. Executives have become familiar with jargon such as ERP and e-business, and IT has entered the cultural mainstream with advent of e-mail and web browsers. Many IT directors are part of their firm's executive team. However, Y2K and the dotcom crash dented the credibility of IT bosses, and budgets have been cut back in response to the economic slowdown. The increased focus on business skills means today's IT directors do not necessarily come from a technical background.
Hot topics for today's IT chiefs
- Changing role of the IT director
- Offshore outsourcing
- Open source operating systems
- When will IT spending pick up?