IT directors should be techno-gurus too

Direct Line's group IT director argues against the view that people in his position don't need to be "techies". Julia Vowler...

Direct Line's group IT director argues against the view that people in his position don't need to be "techies". Julia Vowler reports

The debate has raged back and forth for decades, and still shows no signs of being resolved. It's the old chestnut - does the IT director really have to have the T in his title, and does he need it in his skillset?

One school of thought says that as IT becomes ever more business-critical, IT directors should not be wasting their time keeping up with the technology - they have more important things to do. From top-level strategic thinking to schmoozing with the rest of the board, the IT director must be upward-focused.

David Taylor, of IT directors' group Certus, says, "A chief information officer doesn't have to understand anything about technology. His single goal is to get the best out of people to get his organisation into the new business world."

The T in IT, in this view, can safely be left to a chief technology officer, not the chief information officer.

Not everyone is of Taylor's opinion. Richard Beal, group IT director of insurer Direct Line, disagrees vehemently.

Having a technology-ignorant IT director is, he says, " irresponsible. I've no sympathy for IT-ignorant IT directors."

Beal does not regard the issue as an either/or dipole. It's not a question of an IT director being either a top-level techno-guru or a dynamic business leader. He must be both.

Direct Line has launched a £50m e-business venture, its Jamjar motoring site. Did Beal have to fight to be included in the strategic business planning behind the major investment?

Just the opposite. As a direct insurer, where the entire insurance operation relies on IT, Direct Line has always put a high value on it. "IT has always been at the centre of business - Direct Line is all built on IT," he says.

"I matter," he asserts. Because of that explicit and openly recognised dependence, "I try to know everything about IT and business".

Beal goes further than warning against IT directors losing their T touch. In the new IT-dependent economy, top management must be techno-savvy too - or risk losing its edge.

The question, says Beal, is not so much whether IT directors need to be techno-savvy,as whether their bosses can afford not to be. If the chief executive is IT-ignorant, "should he be allowed to hold his job?"

Fortunately Beal's chief executive has an IT background, and Direct Line's founder was once a programmer. "It's a great advantage having IT-knowledgeable senior management," he asserts.

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