Tomorrow's IT Leaders will come in from the edges

08 Dec 2009 View Comments
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New-leadership-logoWhat is the biggest challenge for IT leaders of the future? Surely it must be that IT leaders today no longer have the influence they once had. The ownership of systems, operational processes, and most particularly, the core IT professionals that were their principal means of effecting change, is becoming unclear.

The lack of clarity is the result of the questions about the role of large, central IT organisations. Why build big IT groups when it is cheaper and easier to source services in the cloud? Indeed, why not just build an end-user-computing application that does the job, using, say, Excel or Access?. Actually, when it comes right down to it, is there any need to rely on expensive, highly experienced IT professionals to write code when a new graduate can do a good-enough job using such tools?

Further reading

Oh, I know many IT leaders scoff at the suggestion that Microsoft Office can replace the mainframe, but of the many business processes in your organisation, how many are implemented in systems you control? And how many run entirely on paper? The big gap between these two numbers represents the amount of influence IT leaders have lost as a result of the new way IT is being done.

It is a number that will grow larger, no matter what big IT does.

This, then, is the biggest challenge for IT leaders of the future. It is redefining the role of their IT organisations in the face of disruption to their core responsibilities from internal competitors. This is a redefinition that is going to have fundamental ramifications throughout the IT profession.

You see, if the business can do IT by itself, then IT must redefine itself as the business if it is to continue to have a role.

But this brings us to the very edge of a leadership crisis, because many IT professionals don’t have the knowledge or experience to actually run businesses. They may be able to run a budget, since they’ve probably had control of a cost centre since they became managers. But where is the experience in getting new revenue? Of campaigning to get new customers to switch from a competitor? Or of top-table strategy, taking into account not only IT considerations, but everything facing the business?

Very few organisations are blessed with IT leadership that can do these things, which is why you so rarely see the CIO being promoted to the top job. Look at the people who get those jobs: invariably they’re the ones with a track record of getting the money, not spending it.

The problem is the inherent specialisation of the IT profession. It is a profession that silos itself away from the rest of the organisation, because it has unique and complex challenges to solve. Big IT worries about security, scalability and reliability, and the whole IT shop is oriented around minimising the chance that something will go wrong. To be a senior IT professional, you come up through the ranks dealing with such issues day to day.

Meanwhile, colleagues in other parts of the business are getting a broad education from experiencing lots of different facets of business operations. They might spend time in marketing, or finance, or strategy, having done a few years at the front line in the full glare of customer expectation, all the while adding skills and accomplishments to their CVs.

All the unfortunate IT leader knows, after an equivalent amount of time, is how to keep the lights on, and more rarely, how to change a bulb without turning out the lights at all.

There are changes afoot though. I’ve started to see new graduates who know about IT, but are much more interested in what can be done with it than how it works.

They gravitate to areas on the fringe of the IT organisation, perhaps to procurement, or user interface design, or innovation, where they can expose themselves to things away from the technocratic day to day. You see them going to meetings with their friends elsewhere in the business, and participating in brainstorms in areas completely unrelated to their day to day duties.

They will probably go on to do business related training that give them specific skills in the sectors they’ve joined.

They know, even if their managers do not, that they must have this broad experience to compete as the barriers that encircle big IT come down. The future of IT leadership, in hands such as these, is much more certain than the present. The new breed of graduates may have had to go underground to get the cross-functional skills that IT organisations traditionally deny them, but they’re only a few years away from their first management jobs.

And when they take that step into leadership, as they eventually will, it will only be a few more years beyond, when present-day IT leadership realises that, without really knowing it, they’re now working for their former employees.

James Gardner is former head of innovation at Lloyds Banking Group

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