City University asks: What future for IT leaders?

The next generation of IT leaders are challenging the traditional CIO role. Jenny Williams talks to the first intake of students on City University London's Master of Information Leadership (MIL) course as they move to new leadership roles

The next generation of IT leaders are challenging the traditional CIO role. Jenny Williams talks to the first intake of students on City University London's Master of Information Leadership (MIL) course as they move to new leadership roles.

City's MIL course is designed to support career progression from a mid-career information professional to leadership position. Five months since the first students started the course, how do they plan to change the future IT leader role?

Technical skills

David Wills became the CIO of Ofcom at the beginning of February and is one of four students enrolled on the MIL course.

Originally from New Zealand, David Wills previously worked as a systems accountant for six years. During his 16 years in the UK, he spent 13 years as an IT consultant.

Three years ago he joined Ofcom as an environment and programme manager, implementing SAP, Spectrum and ERP systems. After a year he became the IS director and was appointed CIO of Ofcom this month.

He thinks the role of the CIO will take more of a leadership position in the core business: "I think the best CIOs have a strong combination of technical skills and business knowledge. It is very important that future information leaders recognise that both are equally important to be successful," he said.

"Everything that the business does today is underpinned by IT and information leadership. With cloud services becoming mature, we are now seeing a lot of IT delivery functions becoming commoditised and the ICT role is becoming even more strategic."

Business know-how

But Marc Biggs, head of development at hedge fund CQS Management, disagrees: "As things get commoditised, IT leaders are going to be less and less technical and more about aligning themselves with the business," said Biggs, another student on City's MIL course.

"The traditional CTO and CIO role of keeping the lights on probably will go. The CIO role won't go. The type of skills will change. CIOs need to understand the business more," Marc Biggs said.

Biggs joined an investment bank and worked for Barclays Capital in its merging markets department, before joining CQS.

He's using the MIL course to pause for thought, he said. "The business environment and working out what is the most important issue is crucial," he said.

Convincing business leaders

Omid Shiraji, head of IS strategy and service development at City University London, thinks getting business leaders to accept the CIO's more strategic role will be a challenge.

"As we commoditise, there is a significant risk that the value that information provides to the business is decreased. If it is just being used efficiently, there is no value. It needs to be strategically managed to breed capabilities and getting business leaders to accept that is the challenge," says Omid Shiraji, one of the four MIL students.

Shiraji did a business information systems degree at university and started his career in IT support. After working in operations management and project management, he began his role at City last month.

Shiraji believes being inventive will be increasingly important as new CIOs up-skill themselves to start helping businesses do new things.

The business requirements are also changing. Andy Castle, vice-president of IT for Europe at Equinix, is using the MIL course as an opportunity to gain an understanding of other aspects of business that IT supports, to aid the company's globalisation process.

Andy Castle studied engineering at Warwick University and, after starting in a junior IT role in a start-up system integrator, he then joined the PC and network division of an audio-visual company in Holborn supporting the legal community. In 1994, Castle joined a US telecommunications company as desktop support and now works for Equinix.

Castle said: "Employees know what they want from IT now; we have an IT educated user base, which in turn means that people are far more engaged with the IT systems and applications and how they underpin their business requirements."

The next generation of IT leaders might disagree about what skills future CIOs need - whether technical or strategic business skills - but they are united in recognising that aligning with the business, helping businesses differentiate as well as still keeping the lights on will be a challenge for existing and new IT leaders.

What is the Master of Information Leadership (MIL) course?

City University London's Master of Information Leadership (MIL) is a post-experience executive interdisciplinary masters course, aimed at developing future information leaders.

The MIL course equips mid-career information professionals with the skills and knowledge needed to move into leadership roles, such as CIO, CTO, business change director and knowledge director.

The programme is part-time, taking place in central London over 10 weekends. It is taught by academic and industry practitioners and also provides access to a network of experts, CIOs, CTOs and related professionals who contribute to the course.

Apply for the Computer Weekly Step-Up Scholarship worth £30,000 
The Computer Weekly Step-Up scholarship, worth £30,000, has been launched by City University London, offering one IT professional the chance to study for City's Master of Information Leadership (MIL) for free.

Applicants must have a minimum of three years' work experience in a business-facing information role and submit a 500-600 word essay addressing the question: "What are the challenges IT leaders face in the sector you work in, and how would you address those challenges?"

To apply for the scholarship for April 2011 entry, visit City University London's website. The deadline for entries is 28 February 2011.



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