Today, IT directors appear beset not just by contracting budgets, but by new, tougher agendas.
First, company boards ask IT directors to play more of a role in strategy. But there are problems here While much of the technical side of their job can be and has been outsourced, the modish title of Chief Information Officer does not guarantee that IT directors are prepared for a more strategic role.
Second, we have learnt since the Enron affair that ‘strategy’ itself has become a word used to dignify mergers, acquisitions and financial re-engineering. As a result, in a Britain where shopkeeping and transactions still dominate the corporate psyche, strategy for IT directors is often reduced to migrating customers over to IP-based channels so as to save costs. Indeed, saving money in such a manner often amounts to the practical substance of ‘tighter budgets’.
These facts should remind us that boards often only ask IT directors, like consultants, to engage in strategy because boards themselves are unsure of what direction to take.
That leads to a second item on the IT director’s agenda. They are asked to assure the continuity of their business in the face of dangerous employees, terrorists and seekers of competitor intelligence. I have written elsewhere about this. In brief, I believe that an obsession with business survival threatens to become the tail that wags the dog of business wealth creation. Mobile IT in particular seems to have prompted special fears about corporate security.
At the same time, IT directors feel that it's hard to keep up, as needs they must, with the latest best practice in a plethora of operational areas. These begin, thirdly, with the management of ‘partners’ and of brands. Supply Chain, Customer Relationship and Brand Management are all part of the IT director’s brief nowadays. Indeed, as Ford found out during its crisis over the Bridgestone’s tyres, the three are directly related – falling as they did within the general continuity of the Ford business….
Brand management is a special challenge to IT directors. Apart from their lack of familiarity with the issue, brand communications are more and more aimed not at customers, but at staff. In turn, they demand of IT directors involvement in what is known as internal ‘change management’. In practice, that means that IT directors have to concern themselves much more with tricky HR matters in general and facilities management and workstyle organisation in particular. They must take care of employees’ ‘work-life balance’, including mobile working and telework. They must also minimise desktop stress and PC rage. And, complicating things still further, they have to do all this whever a new acquisition is made.
A further and fifth aspect of the new tasks facing IT directors comes straight out of this. Particularly when an acquisition is made, managing employees stress levels is, in part at least, a matter of integrating legacy systems in the famously ‘seamless’ manner claimed by all IT ads. In turn, one of the reasons for performing this integration is often to improve knowledge management and e-learning – now seen as the essential antidotes to stress and a pervasive felling of directionlessness at work.
As if this was not enough, the purpose of knowledge management and e-learning supplies a sixth task for IT directors. It is to protect intellectual property, and particularly the ‘property’ rather than the ‘intellectual’ side of ‘IPR’. Every idea and every database must be protected. That will confer upon IT directors legal duties that they are not presently used to.
The real wealth-creating benefits of human beings working with IT appear on theIT director’s agenda for tomorrow, but only as the seventh and last item. And here it is interesting to see that the contribution made by IT is more and more interpreted are as being to do with achieving a measurable ROI, and/or with usability. But while the quest for predicting the ROI on IT projects has already been proved to be pretty fruitless, that for usability shows little sense of ambition. The wider potential of IT for collaboration and productivity improvements – not only in manufacturing and services, but also in construction, extraction, agriculture and urban systems – is always the last thing, it appears, on society’s mind.
The IT director, like more and more people in general employment, is confronted by an agenda too broad to be realistic. That agenda has only come about because management in general has, like Western elites since the end of the Cold War, tended to lose the plot.
It’s time that IT directors began fighting not for particular technologies, but for some general principles. The first principle must be that only rationalism about what IT can and cannot do is likely to staunch what promises to be an explosion of tasks.
Unless IT directors ruthlessly discriminate between the wheat and the chaff of their jobs, they will lose legitimacy. Unless they reject what I have termed ‘T2V’ solutions – therapy-to-victim approaches which exaggerate the importance of security, continuity, stress, e-learning – they will be overwhelmed by trying to introduce the wrong remedies.