Computing Research recently undertook a major research project with one clear objective: to provide a better understanding of the decision-making process for large-scale IT procurement in the UK.
Of particular interest to us was the role of different IT and business decision-makers at each stage of the procurement process.
It is often tempting to assume that IT decision-making is driven from the top, with strategic directions being set in the boardroom and the C-suite then leading the more hands-on members of the IT team in selecting the right solutions.
This may be the case in a few instances, but our research shows that it is more common for major IT projects to begin in the engine room, with technicians, analysts and IT managers identifying an issue and building the case, often at the behest of a particular business department or function.
A recent report by Gartner and Financial Executives International found that the role of the chief finance officer (CFO) in IT decision-making is increasing, with 44 per cent of senior finance executives saying their role increased in the past year.
The Gartner/FEI survey also found that the CFO is likely to be the leader of a group responsible for IT investment (41 per cent said they held this role) or to be a member of an IT decision-making committee (also 41 per cent).
(One reason that CFOs are important – especially in straitened times – is that they control IT funding. As such, they can be powerful advocates and enforcers of corporate policies and decisions.)
• While we would broadly concur with these findings, our own research identifies significant caveats.
The CFO is indeed an important person when it comes to IT decision-making, but his or her involvement really only comes into play at the end of the process, rather than during the vital fact-finding and shortlisting stages.
Aside from IT purchases that directly affect the finance function, the CFO is usually a gatekeeper rather than a driver of IT investment. Their role is to ensure that innovations have obvious business value and are not likely to exceed budgets.
The IT decision-makers
The Computing survey was conducted by email among 755 IT decision makers working within the IT department. In addition, two focus groups were conducted, with the findings augmented and verified by seven individual in-depth interviews.
IT decision-makers in both small and large organisations divide their time evenly between operational duties (keeping the wheels turning) and more strategic matters (planning and project management). However, many said that increasing amounts of their time are now spent on the latter.
An IT manager at a mid-sized public-sector organisation said, “We used to be very hands-on, but in the last three years new systems have come on board, and new ways of doing things. It seems IT has evolved and a lot more planning and analysis is involved now”.
This shift in priorities, with IT managers as likely to be found in meeting rooms as in the server room, has long been predicted by analysts, and vendors of enabling technologies, such as cloud services. If the CFO is getting more involved in IT decision-making, as Gartner suggests, then IT managers and other members of the IT team are also becoming more engaged in formulating strategy.
The decision-making journey
There are three distinct phases within the business IT decision-making journey (figure 1). As you might expect, the length of that journey varies by organisation size and the nature of the project in hand. The general consensus of the respondents was that the decision-making process typically takes between three and 12 months, although for large public-sector IT projects outside of framework agreements, the time-span can be longer – sometimes up to two years.