Interview: GartnerGroup European chief Helen Mumford

Helen Mumford, the new European head of analysis and research organisation GartnerGroup believes the role of IT is changing and the chief information...

Helen Mumford, the new European head of analysis and research organisation GartnerGroup believes the role of IT is changing and the chief information officer (CIO) has every right to be chief executive officer (CEO). There is nothing currently going on in business that is not either enabled by or dependent on technology. “IT is central and pivotal to business,” she said. Five years ago it was fine for a CEO to know very little about technology, not take very much interest in IT, and give it to the finance director to look after. Now, Mumford said, “IT is the difference between success and failure for organisations. Therefore, it is the difference between success and failure for the CEO and he cannot afford not to know about it.” This, said Mumford, raises the issue of whether individual CIOs have changed their competencies, their attitudes and skills and management processes at the same rate as the demands on their jobs. “Those that have changed are central to their organisations,” she said.

Mumford believes CIOs need to turn their attention away from risk management because businesses today are focused on revenue. “Shareholder value is about growing market share but IT has historically been deployed for process improvement and cost reduction as in business process re-engineering.” She notes that the profession of IT is concerned with methodologies, standards and rules, which is all about reducing risks. However, Mumford explained, “Every time risk is reduced the revenue opportunity reduces too. IT has not been employed for revenue generation.” The CIO has the right to a leadership position she said, but to get there they have to stop thinking about risk and start thinking about opportunities.

They also need to have exactly the same appetite for risk as their organisation she warned. “It is not the CIO’s job to bet the business. That is what the CEO does, but decisions made around IT are business-type decisions and this is why the CIO needs to take risks.” As IT becomes strategic to the business, Mumford said the CIO need not worry about losing control of IT spending.

Because IT is so critical to an organisation other areas of the business are inevitably becoming interested in it. For example, she said, “Many e-business initiatives are run by the chief marketing officer or co-owned by the CIO along with someone else in his organisation.” One of the biggest risks now facing the CIO is not having an IT team with the right skills in place. Mumford said the skills problem has two elements. First, there are not enough IT professionals. Second, those people in IT may not necessarily have the right skills. “Skill requirements are changing so fast that someone highly skilled in January could be out of work by July. Old HR policies just won’t do.” Her advice is simple: “The CIO tends to be entirely clear on his approach to attracting the right people, retaining them and retraining when the appropriate skills are not in place.”

Mumford said the CIO and IT managers need to understand the activities they provide which add value to the business. IT activities concerned with innovation and revenue generation can deliver shareholder value. “If I did not have enough staff,” she said, “I would ensure that the people I do have were focused on the highest value activities. This is a real mental shift for the IT department.” Mumford has clear views about using temporary IT workers to meet specialist requirements. While this may prove expensive for the time the contractor is used, it is less costly over a 12-month period than employing a permanent member of staff. A key benefit to the business is that using contractors allows IT departments to keep fresh, up-to-date, and stay ahead of technological trends. “With contractors natural selection will occur. People who do not have the right skills will not be employed.” In the IT department staff can, meanwhile, become less specialist and more generalist. “They become experts in the business context, understanding the business environment rather than the technology,” she added.

They become hybrid managers, relationship managers and business analysts. Their role would be to manage the interface between IT, the business and the specialists. “The key differentiator for such people won’t be in their skills but in the way they think around a subject because this will enable them to continue to add value and innovate within the business,” said Mumford. She believes that, as the role of traditional IT staff changes, CIOs need to look beyond traditional IT skills when staffing. “I’m amazed at the proportion of adverts in the appointment pages of computer journals that ask for specific knowledge and skills.” Hardly any ask for business attitude. “I would not recruit on the basis of three years of C++.”

Her advice is simple, “If I was a CIO recruiting staff I would wish to determine the applicant’s interpersonal skills, their open-mindedness.” The applicants for IT department vacancies, she said, should be the “can-do people” who don’t suffer from “not invented here syndrome”.

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