IT workers need to think like business executives

12 Dec 2005

A fundamental shift in the business/IT mindset is occurring and the days of IT workers being consulted purely to fix printers, find passwords and setup email addresses are numbered. A senior Gartner vice-president told that IT professionals will need to become more versatile and not only have a technical aptitude but understand business and financial models.

Last week Jeffrey Mann, research vice-president with Gartner, was in Dublin to address a Chief Information Officer (CIO) Forum organised by Microsoft and attended by CIOs of major organisations in Ireland. In an interview, Mann described a fundamental shift in IT departments. “It’s been an ambition of IT departments for some time now to move higher up the echelons of a business and be taken serious at a boardroom level. IT departments have to move from mere service provision and being reactive to being involved in the core raison d’etre of a business in terms of being proactive to business events.

“When most business executives think about IT, it’s usually when they forget a password or the printer breaks. If the role of an IT professional in an enterprise is reactive in terms of fixing things when they break, that’s bad. The IT professional going forward will have to be something of a ‘versatilist’; a person that understands the technology but will also be able to understand financial models and operational issues. Someone who may be based on the IT side but also addresses core competencies such as ‘How do we make money?'”

Mann’s comments echoes research by Gartner in November that pinpointed the emergence of a new breed of IT professional, the versatilist, who will have technical aptitude, local knowledge, knowledge of industry processes and leadership ability.

Gartner says that successful IT professionals will identify themselves not just by occupation – “I work in IT” – but by the industry, process and change programmes in which they participate – “I spent two years helping design an internet selling process that boosted revenue by 20pc”. IT professionals must also prove that they understand the realities of the business, such as industry, core processes, customer bases, regulatory environment, culture and constraints.

Gartner predicts that by 2010, six out of 10 IT professionals will assume business-facing roles.

Regardless of whether the IT professional works in a corporate IT organisation, in an outsourcing team, in product development or in business units, their areas of expertise, knowledge and skills will change. “Some will be bolstered, some will be carved up, some will be redistributed and some will be displaced,” said Diane Morello, vice-president of research at Gartner.

By 2010, Gartner predicts that IT departments in mid-size and large companies will be 30pc smaller than they are in 2005.

“If the past decade represented the era of specialists, this decade will mark the era of the versatilist,” said Morello. “Versalitists are people whose numerous roles, assignments and experiences are enabling them to synthesize knowledge and context to fuel business value. Versatilists are applying their depth of skills and experiences to a rich scope of situations and challenges and implementing their cross-organisational insight to flesh out teams and fill competency gaps.”

Mann bolstered the argument for more versatile IT professionals by recalling various observations. “When I started my career I met the IT manager of a smallish software company. I was amazed because he had no idea what the company was doing. He didn’t know or care whether he worked for an insurance company or a software provider or government agency, all he had to do was deploy email addresses, he had disks, he had wires. That type of person is useless in a crisis.

“If his company was setting up a joint venture with another company to market products and they needed gain access to logistics, if that guy doesn’t understand what the business is about and where the two companies compete the project is going to be lost. Firms are destined to failure with that type of a mind set.”

In another situation Mann recalled a company that decided it needed to shave US$100k off its IT budget and a senior business manager made the knee-jerk and shortsighted decision to shut down the email system. “That short-sightedness threw the rest of the organisation into chaos. They saved US$100k alright, but their FedEx budget went up to US$1m.”

In another situation Mann said, a business decided to restrict its 24×7 helpdesk to nine-to-five business hours. “The result? They lost out on a US$2m deal because there was nobody there to process it.”

Mann warned: “IT people need to be aware that senior executives are reacting to change, investment and growth on a daily basis. By the same virtue IT people are used to talking about efficiencies, return on investments and service level agreements on a daily basis. Those two sets of terms are too far apart. They need to move a little bit closer – I’m talking about synchonicity in terms and behaviours – terms and behaviours that bridge the gap that both sides are interested in.”

By John Kennedy