The continuing challenge of getting IT on the board

Ten years ago I wrote a paper headlining the fact that few organisations had IT representation at main board level. At that time, however, the trend was...

Ten years ago I wrote a paper headlining the fact that few organisations had IT representation at main board level. At that time, however, the trend was on the increase as organisations realised the strategic potential of IT. Today I am again writing the same thing - the upward trend was short lived.

The problem

Many organisations put their toe in the water once or twice, but subsequently place appointees back beneath the board and reporting to it. The question is why? Perhaps the answer lies in the following research.

The board

A number of boards of directors across a range of industry sectors were asked three core questions:

1 How important do you believe IT is to the future of your business?

• 94% answered "exceedingly"

2 How highly do you rate your own IT function?

• 46% said "not very highly"

• 32% said "they are OK at the technical stuff"

3. Is your most senior IT person considered to be a member of the "inner sanctum"?

• 98% said "no".

We appear to have a dichotomy, whereby boards recognise the significance and potential of IT, but don't rate their own IT leadership. When asked to elaborate, comments included:

• "Most IT directors focus solely on the next gadget or next 'big thing' in technology and how it will revolutionise operations - board members are simply not interested"

• "IT leaders take huge risks by not embracing change and not doing anything"

• "IT Directors spend too much time managing downwards and focusing on day-to-day operational issues"

The solution

To put things into context consider the role of an IT function as a "Maslow" type hierarchy of deliverables.

At the base level we have service delivery. This is about getting the basics right, "keeping the lights on", and delivering a reliable, responsive, robust service that addresses and serves the day-to-day needs of the business. This is your "licence to exist" as an IT director and if you can't get this right, the word "outsourcing" will certainly be on the lips of your business colleagues.

The next level, project delivery, is about responding to the future needs of the business by undertaking new work and delivering projects on time, to specification and within budget. This is your opportunity to show what you can do, gain credibility and begin to have a voice within the business context. Operating at this level is your "licence to thrive".

Having mastered the two base levels you will have won the right to "contribute to business thinking". When you are operating at this level you will be working with your business colleagues to deliver real business benefits. Questions like "are we getting value for money from our IT function?" will have faded into the distant past and SLA's will be gathering dust in some forgotten archive. At this level the business trusts and believes in you - proof and evidence are not required. This is your "licence to influence".

At the very top of the pyramid, "transforming business thinking", you will have entered that elusive "inner sanctum". You will be part of that small team shaping the future direction of you organisation.

You will be au fait with future technological trends the sociological and political implications of technology the future trends of your industry sector and business in general. You will be injecting those nuggets of wisdom and generating those ideas that will transform your business. At this level you have achieved your "licence to decide".

But remember if you haven't got the technology sorted, can't deliver to promise and haven't built effective relationships with your peer group you will never get the opportunity to voice your ideas or words of wisdom even if they are the greatest in the world. "Being right" is not enough!

Key messages

• Sort out your service and project delivery. Recruit first-rate people beneath you who are team players then delegate and let go

• Nurture and reward talent. Exercise consideration, compassion and sensitivity in your dealings with people and hence engender trust and loyalty

• Win friends and influence people build relationships upwards, downward and sidewards. Build trust and respect generate goodwill and take the opportunity to learn from this diverse network

• Develop your business knowledge and political acumen. Learn the art of influencing, make yourself useful and get yourself noticed. Be passionate and inspirational

• Take an interest in the wider world. Have an opinion and contribution to make in relation to every item on the board agenda and demonstrate original "out of the box" thinking

• Don't wait to be told what to do take the initiative and be prepared to make "bold" decisions based on your heart and your gut instinct. Have the courage to challenge authority and accepted wisdom. Remember, it is better to ask for forgiveness that to seek permission

• Ultimately, become one of the new generation of Chief Transformation Officers who have the ability to give their organisations a competitive edge and to become role models who help others follow in their footsteps

The above will require three essential ingredients: a high IQ, emotional intelligence (EQ) and the will to do it. Most IT leaders have an abundance of IQ so providing you have the will, the deciding factor will be your EQ. As one of the CEO's in my research put it "it all depends upon the size of your right brain!". ●

Robina Chatham is managing director of Robina Chatham Ltd and visiting fellow at Cranfield School of Managementwww.chatham.uk.com

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