Navigate your way to business value

Tracing business benefits back to IT systems can be difficult. But when it comes to professional sports events such as the America's Cup, the systems used by sailing teams for navigation and diagnostics can make the difference between first place and the long walk home.

Tracing business benefits back to IT systems can be difficult. But when it comes to professional sports events such as the America's Cup, the systems used by sailing teams for navigation and diagnostics can make the difference between first place and the long walk home.

According to Eric Ernst, IT manager aboard the Victory Challenge team at this year's America's Cup, at many companies where IT is used in a more traditional setting, the importance of information systems is still not widely understood by those in power.

"In most companies, the people responsible for making final decisions on technology are IT illiterate and have a propensity to maintain the status quo rather than recognising what is going to move the company forward," said Ernst. "It is a common problem, but IT has to take a lead in repairing this divide."

In December 2006 at the age of 30, Ernst became the IT manager aboard the Victory Challenge team. He bears the responsibility for making sure all IT systems on the boat work correctly.

From checking that navigational, telemetry and weather-monitoring systems are up around the clock, to managing the 50 workstations that handle administration, the pressure never lets up. He is first on board in the morning and is usually the last one out at night, but he would not have it any other way.

Before joining the Victory team, Ernst spent six years managing IT security at Swiss banks and investment houses. But he grew weary of the politics involved with carrying out IT projects in the corporate environment.

Shouldering accountability for the success of projects and sharing that responsibility with people who did not understand the technology made it difficult, Ernst said. It was his lifelong love of sailing that eventually drove him to apply for his current role.

Getting things done is the order of the day in his new position. The job has also shaped his view on how IT departments should be more proactive, especially when it comes to promoting technology at board level.

"IT managers need to refine their approach to selling technology in the business. Simply pointing out that the business will be in trouble if it does not buy a £200,000 piece of software is not enough. You have to get sponsorship and back-up from management, and take the time to educate them about how new technology can help the business," he said.

For him, the answer to the divide between IT and business is for IT departments to get beyond asking for more money. Ernst also feels that businesses cannot continue asking for more functionality from IT systems at a lower cost. Businesses need to show IT departments more respect, and IT departments need to learn that this respect must be earned.

Ernst said that IT managers need to gain a wider understanding of the business and how technology affects business processes if they are to establish a dialogue with senior management and wish to be seen as credible business assets.

Having an understanding of the business is especially important for young IT practitioners so that they do not get shoe-boxed in their careers as some of their contemporaries may have done in the past.

"Older IT managers tend to be more stuck in technology and have a poorer understanding of the business. Simply saying you have got 20-plus years' industry experience in technology is meaningless nowadays, as technology evolves so fast. A far more valuable skill is being able to present how new technology can deliver bottom-line benefits to non-IT managers."

Having more than just technical skills is something that he feels managers should look for when hiring IT staff. The candidate's technical skills should come second to their attitude to work. "If I was hiring, I would be quite prepared to take the time to teach someone who did not know how to build a server, provided they had a willingness to learn."

He said that building an IT team with the right attitude to the job is much harder than simply recruiting people with relevant technical abilities. Employers who complain that IT graduates do not have the right skills fail to realise they are in the best position to do something about the problem by offering them training, he said.

At the same time, he said that young IT professionals should begin developing an eye for what areas they intend to specialise in early on in their careers. "There are lots of avenues open, such as programming, networking and consulting. The key is deciding what you enjoy doing. A lot of this can be trial and error, so it is important that IT graduates make themselves available to work on a variety of different projects at the start."

With the 32nd America's Cup over, preparation for the 33rd has already begun on a longer 90-foot boat weighing more than 24 tonnes. Working with a team he trusts, Ernst is certain it is a responsibility he can shoulder.

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