Time to reassert IT's value to the business

Creativity, innovation and understanding the firm's strategy should be the concerns of the IT director.We ask how these ideals...

Creativity, innovation and understanding the firm's strategy should be the concerns of the IT director.We ask how these ideals can best be put into practice

The head of one of the UK's largest IT user organisations issued a call to arms to UK IT directors in Computer Weekly last month.

Michael Gough, chief executive of the National Computing Centre, which has a membership of more than 1,000 user organisations, said it was time for IT directors to reassert the value of IT, to do less outsourcing and "regain control of the competency to manage information and use it to develop the business".

He said, "The role of the modern IT director involves juggling the demands of being a strategic innovator; change leader; senior management coach; operations manager; chief of staff; technology expert; and supplier manager. But those who master the art are in a unique position to influence, direct and lead their organisation."

Commenting on the issues raised by Gough, Stan Hulme, group IT director at financial services company Bland Bankart, said, "In many cases I believe IT leaders are not in tune with the business they are employed to support. They are often distracted by technological offerings and prone to short-term thinking that leads to costly reactive work or even neglect. IT strategy [needs] to be aligned with business strategy; the [business] case should incorporate the key considerations of return on investment and, ultimately, the real-world benefit."

Jamie Anderson, programme director and researcher at the centre for management development at London Business School, said, "IT is a major driver of innovation [in business]."

Innovative use of IT is clearly an area IT directors must address. Martin Wilson, ventures director at clearing house Bacs, said, "To gain competitive advantage you must truly understand your customers, their business and their market issues. Innovation brings risk and additional investment costs, so is often left for the few to lead and others to follow."

Sharon McLaughlin, IT manager at Stena subsidiary Northern Marine Management, said, "IT should make a competitive difference. Unless IT can develop creative solutions, it can only offer the business the same vanilla installations available to every other business."

Without innovation, IT departments cannot offer the business the differentiators that allow them to offer customers a clear choice. As an example, McLaughlin said, "In 2003/2004 Northern Marine has continued to invest in in-house software including the development of version two of our own integrated personnel and payroll system that deals with the idiosyncrasies of taxation and benefits when tracking personnel on vessels travelling worldwide."

Ovum research director Gary Barnett agreed with the importance of creativity. "People who are tasked with delivering low-cost, high availability IT services have no place on the board - 80% of IT does not matter," he said.

"The only differentiator is when IT breaks. The smart CIO is able to identify the 20% that makes the difference."

IT directors still face an uphill struggle convincing the board of their worth, according to Tom Ilube, CTO at online bank Egg. However, it is not simply a matter of IT directors presenting their case clearly to the board - the board also has a responsibility. "There is a challenge for the board or senior executives to start learning the language of technology," he said.

"It is inexcusable for senior management to have no knowledge of IT. If IT is a strategic asset of a business, executives must speak technology as fluently as they speak finance or marketing."

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