Weaving spells in the boardroom

Authority in the boardroom depends on the ability to speak the financial language of the business

Authority in the boardroom depends on the ability to speak the financial language of the business

Why is it so difficult for senior IT professionals to get their feet under the boardroom table? Charles Sutton, business psychologist at consultancy Nicholson McBride, says people with an IT background are fighting against tradition.

"The make-up of the board has historically been structured to reflect the different functions within an organisation that are responsible for vital aspects of the business," he says.

"However, things have changed. IT is far more prevalent and most of us work in a post-structural company where the make-up of the board no longer represents how the company is formed. This obviously throws up issues of power and representation."

Sutton says that of all the functions within a company, typically it is the finance director who has his sights on the managing director's role. This is, in part, due to the fact that money sits at the centre of all business.

"The language used by the finance director sets him apart from his colleagues from other functions," says Sutton. "He can talk the talk of business, profit and loss and shareholder value. Many other heads of functions, including IT, might not have the language and skills to compete with the finance director on this level."

He points to research from IT services company Synstar showing that only 6% of the 200 European IT managers interviewed see themselves having a place on the board within the next two years.

The suspicion with which other members of the business regard IT has also impeded the progress of senior IT professionals heading up the greasy pole, says Sutton. "IT is seen as an almost magical discipline where people weave spells with their black boxes - it is a mysterious place that is difficult to enter. Also, for many, IT implies change. It is a threat to job security and people's position in the status quo. Those who are occupied with the solutions of the past may not fit into tomorrow's models."

These perceptions of IT also extend to the people who work in the industry.

"IT people are commonly thought of as having a language of their own and are seen as people whose potential for understanding the wider machinations of business is limited," says Sutton. "The idea of a career path for IT people in the mainstream of the business is a fresh one. They are having to fight against all this prejudice but the good news is they are not alone - human resources professionals are faced with the same issues."

Sutton thinks that the skills shortage that has plagued the IT industry for years will act as a catalyst for getting new blood into the profession. "Increasingly good technologists will be at the forefront of leading-edge companies," he says.

"Companies that don't recognise the importance of these people and don't give them suitable opportunities for career progression and a visible route to the board will lose out to those companies that do."

But as the debate rages, isn't there a chance that the constant comparison of IT and the business may reinforce the divisions and strengthen the barriers?

"One thing I do hear from ITers," says Sutton, "is that they say they are constantly talking with end-users to find out what solution will fit their needs. And they do genuinely believe that this what they do.

"But there is a big gap between believing and doing. You also hear the IT fraternity talk about educating end-users rather than genuinely finding out what end-users really want.

"I feel talk of educating is dangerous. It suggests that someone has knowledge that someone else doesn't."

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