Comment: Harnessing technology

12 Dec 2005

Over the years I have had the privilege of mentoring executive and technology leaders intent on harnessing the full potential of ICT systems in their respective organisations. Indeed, that honour has been extended in recent years to mentoring networks of leaders in numerous private and public sector settings, often with an international dimension. Across many of these settings I have observed that the role of ICT in large organisations is often contentious with the head of ICT frequently under pressure due to poor or disappointing outcomes from ICT investments.

But why is the role of ICT in large organisations so contentious? Why is the ICT function subjected to frequent restructuring often with a significant commitment to new outsourcing arrangements? Why do large organisations create the office of the chief information officer (CIO) with fanfare only to eliminate both the office and its entire corporate support staff in a relatively short number of years afterwards? Is the head of ICT the CIO, ICT director, head of information systems (IS), chief technology officer or someone else? Is the head of ICT a business executive, a technology executive or a blend of both? How should the head of ICT interact with other business executives? How should ICT be represented at board level?

I have met heads of IS who believed that they held the key to transforming their organisations. No one else believed them. I have met heads of ICT who believed that ICT was a strategic resource. Their budgets were frequently cut leaving them minding ailing ICT infrastructures. I have met CIOs committed to a new era of ICT deployment where sharing services is the key to success. Unfortunately, while everyone nods in approval, no one is prepared to take action. Could it be that the world of logic and ingenuity that underpins technical excellence is insufficient to deliver significant change with new technology?

Should one take note of developments in the UK and the US where significant attention is being paid to strengthening the role of the head of ICT in large organisations? What role do universities have in underpinning the developmental needs of heads of ICT? Should one be enthused at the enormous work currently under way in the UK that is focused on executive leadership and the effective delivery of large-scale ICT-enabled change? Should one pay any attention to SFIA/3 as a framework to guide the development of a more robust ICT profession? What about COBiT as a mechanism to evaluate the performance of ICT in a large organisational setting? The list of questions goes on and on!

Leaving aside the specifics and embracing a higher strategic perspective, there is undoubtedly a sea change under way in the world of ICT. Never before in the history of ICT have the opportunities to exploit ICT as an engine to underpin large-scale systemic change been so powerful. This point was well borne out in a joint Royal Academy of Engineering (RAE)/British Computer Society (BCS) report last year, which noted the unprecedented opportunities for radical organisational change offered by new ICT systems and solutions.

That same research report drew attention to the yawning gap between the innate capabilities of modern ICT and the ability of executive leaders to harness the full potential of such technologies. For any given period, a brief perusal of the business press in the western world supports the position advanced by the RAE/BCS report. That this gap exists and poses significant challenges for large organisations must be of concern to any head of ICT. It must equally be of concern to all members of executive leadership teams throughout private and public sector organisations alike. Recent media coverage of ICT in the public sector suggests that even political leaders cannot remain unaware of the challenges in this space.

Executive leadership teams throughout large private and public sector organisations alike in Ireland need to think strategically about developing the capacity and capability to maximise the full potential of ICT. A team orientation is critical as is the need to advance a vision for ICT that is energising and stimulating. Any head of ICT will undoubtedly recognise that his or her success with the deployment of ICT is intimately related to behavioural dynamics at executive team level combined with a keen awareness of the role of executive leaders in shaping and delivering large-scale change.

The focus of this new column in Knowledge Ireland is highly ambitious if nothing else. Its intent is to centre on what it takes to strengthen ICT leadership throughout private and public sector organisations alike. Moreover, it aims to inspire the type of leadership that can tackle the challenge of large-scale systemic change that is so central to the effective deployment of ICT today. In addition, building a deeper sense of community amongst ICT leaders is clearly on the radar. A high-level summit of ICT leaders that addresses issues of central concern is also a promising possibility.

While I may have a clear sense of the themes and issues that are critical for ICT leaders today, your views and perspectives are of equal concern. While viewing ICT through the lens of strategic leadership and strategic change naturally gives rise to a set of clearly identifiable themes for the months ahead, these need to be presented in a manner that is congruent with your needs and challenges.

By Dr Joe McDonagh