Chief information officer has to be more than a title, as business change demands greater agility from IT and a new view of professionalism from IT management
The needs of modern business organisations for continuous transformation demand a radical shift in the role and focus of the IT organisation. That shift, essentially from technology service supplier to business exploitation partner, requires the IT organisation to adopt new competences, new relationships and new ways of working within the business.
It is a clich‚ that the only constant is change. But for most organisations, whether private or public, the ability to change rapidly is the key to success, perhaps even survival. Budgetary and competitive pressures, combined with technological change, make business agility an absolute requirement.
Companies are faced with multiple changes in their operating environment: globalisation, global outsourcing, mergers, privatisation and increasing competition. All these trends require rapid responses in the form of the development of new products and services, cost reductions, changes in business processes and the creation of new purchasing and sales channels.
To achieve the required level of agility, an organisation needs structures, processes and systems designed for rapid change. In particular it needs IT systems capable of changing in step with the business changes. The IT architectures, not just the individual system solutions, must be designed to facilitate flexibility and rapid business change. That can only be achieved if the IT function plays a full and active part in all stages of business planning and transformation.
The traditional role of IT as a service function responding to requirements formulated by the business will not meet the needs of a modern organisation. The IT function, whether in-house or outsourced, must be part of the business, working in partnership with other functions to deliver business transformation and exploit business opportunities.
That is not the case in many organisations. Too often the existing IT systems inhibit, rather than facilitate, the company's ability to change. Inflexible, monolithic systems, designed to automate long outdated manual processes and to deliver service in a world of paper rather than electronic communication, still tend to be the order of the day.
And in too many organisations the IT function is still away from the front-line action, seen by other parts of the business, and by itself, as a service provider rather than a partner in the process of effective business transformation.
This is not to suggest that the traditional role of the IT function is unimportant. Sound systems engineering practice and the efficient and effective procurement, deployment and management of the technology are clearly vital. But they do not generally create competitive edge for the business.
That is to be found in the innovative application of information and communication technology to the needs of the business, to exploit opportunity and to facilitate business transformation. It is in that area that the IT organisation has to play a stronger, more proactive game if businesses are to achieve their full potential.
The need for this shift from IT management to IT exploitation has been recognised in the creation over recent years of the role of the chief information officer. CIOs are now found in most organisations of any size, in both the public and private sectors.
However, a quick look at the job advertisements suggests that in many cases it is only the title that has changed; the underlying job specification still looks like that of a traditional IT manager.
That may be part of the reason why a Gartner survey last year found that the typical CIO has less influence on strategy than any other equivalent level manager except the HR director.
So there is much yet to be done, both to change the image and function of the IT organisation and to equip IT professionals to meet the demands of wider responsibilities. In particular, the IT professional of the future, at all levels in the IT organisation, will require a much broader set of skills and competences than in the past. Leadership capability, business planning and change management skills will be essential, as will the full range of soft skills needed for successful business transformation and organisational change.
The implications in all of this extend well beyond the IT department. In particular there are profound implications for academia, for everyone involved in IT skills development and, not least, for the professional bodies like the BCS.
The development of a business focus for the IT organisation must be matched by a similar development of the IT profession. The old model of a profession concerned mainly with the technical and engineering aspects of IT will not serve the needs of the IT professionals of the future, their employers and customers, or the wider community.
The new vision must be for an IT profession with a clear business focus as well as its traditional technology focus. This will be defined in terms of its ability to play a full part in all stages of IT exploitation and business transformation and to have appropriate non-technical skills, including management, business and leadership skills, as core competences. The good news is that work is in hand to develop that vision.
CV: Colin Thompson
Colin Thompson has been BCS deputy chief executive since 1998, having previously worked in a number of senior positions within the society, including membership director and marketing director.
He was responsible for managing the major changes to the professional membership structure, including the new Chartered IT Professional qualification introduced in May 2004, and is currently responsible for the BCS Professionalism in IT programme.
A chartered surveyor, Colin worked in the public sector for 33 years - mainly in the Inland Revenue. He moved from property valuation to information systems management in the 1980s and left the Revenue as the deputy director for IT in 1992 to join the BCS.
The BCSIT Professional Awards 2005
The BCSIT Professional Awards celebrate excellence, innovation and professionalism among UKIT companies. They recognise the contribution of businesses and individuals to the UK's economic prosperity, business efficiency and public services.
There are five categories: Technology Awards, Business Achievement Awards, Individual Excellence Awards, President's Awards and Flagship Awards.
The judging is undertaken by panels of qualified, respected senior ITprofessionals.
The BCS IT Professional Awards 2005 ceremony takes place on Thursday 29 September at the Hilton Park Lane, London.