Business opportunities present new IT challenges and IT directors should be thinking ahead so that they are prepared for a changing business and regulatory environment, says Ben Booth
The only certainty in business is change. It is the role of the IT director to deliver reliable services in a changing business environment, and yet remain in control of a fluid technological and regulatory agenda.
To earn a place in the business' top team, he or she must be seen to provide value across the organisation outside of the purely technological area.
The IT industry now appears to have bottomed out and is about to launch into a further round of switchback boom and bust. The user community has had an opportunity to negotiate prices with suppliers, to retain staff and to hire staff at sensible rates, but in many areas it has also had to reduce costs and has had limited scope for new initiatives.
Even in those sectors which have been growing, businesses have been cautious about IT investment. Nevertheless, e-business is becoming the dominant mode for internal business processes.
Time for growth
The business environment is turning to growth. The challenge will be to deliver more, but with only a limited increase in resources and in a sellers' market which will favour suppliers.
The public sector, which continues to experience growth, will be affected. At Mori we have seen continued growth in public sector areas matched by increased business in key private sectors, including telecoms, IT, business services and human resources.
Keeping abreast of technology requires an enquiring team and good professional advisers, but is traditionally one of the technology-based IT director's core skills. Much of the recent technology change is driven by suppliers and may not deliver significant advantage. Major upgrades are expensive but disruptive - the IT director must judge the optimum time for change.
In times of low IT spend one of the suppliers' gambits has been to attempt to divert the limited in-house IT spend to external suppliers. Such writings as the controversial "IT doesn't matter" article by Nicholas Carr in the Harvard Business Review have encouraged top management to see IT as unable to bring competitive advantage, and therefore as being best handled externally.
The concept of "utility" or "on-demand" computing follows this model. Outsourcing and offshoring are options which require serious consideration, but will not be applicable in all cases. We face an uphill struggle to convince business of the value of IT investment.
Open source is another distraction which threatens to head the IT director off-course in pursuit of an apparently low-cost alternative - there are some applications where it has great value, but a wholesale move to the platform remains a gamble.
Although we may be suspicious of Microsoft's ambitions, those with long memories will recall the days when most operating systems were proprietary and the supposed "open systems" consisted of many incompatible varieties of Unix.
In the next 12 to 18 months we will hear more about the potential of telecoms and computing convergence, though this has been on the agenda for at least 20 years. Voice over IP is one of the key technologies, with separate (but confusing) applications at the Lan and Wan. IT directors will have to decide what these have to offer and whether the risk and cost of conversion is worthwhile.
There are also services on offer from telcos and ISPs but the challenge will be to select those that can provide a service as well as engineering excellence. Home-working and the "always on" connection for mobile staff are increasingly important.
The regulatory environment is increasingly complicated and, with security, has the potential to absorb vast amounts of IT spend with little or no business advantage. The trick must be to get the balance right to satisfy the regulators and keep our systems secure without diverting resources.
IT directors need to balance conflicting priorities, but we should not forget we have to deliver reliable services at an affordable price. Over and above the core deliverables, our wide knowledge and skills provide the background for the chief information officer to identify new business opportunities and the technologies to support them.
Ben Booth is chairman of the BCS Elite group and IT director at research group Mori