Rob Evans examines how IT leadership has developed over the past thirty years, and what the forces shaping change today means for today’s IT leaders.
The first shadow age
Way back – well the 1980s – IT rested firmly in the shadows. The accounts department addressed questions about computers, for a number of good reasons: First and foremost company accountants’ affinity with numbers made them the people most likely to understand computers. Second, the finance department had the most to gain from engaging with computing power – there was clear benefit on using computers to help with the number crunching. Finally, of course, accounts held the purse strings.
Next to the party was the marketing department, which realised that the sort of direct mail it had previously outsourced could be done in-house. Using the same word-processing software used by the secretaries and typists, remember WordStar and WordPerfect, marketing departments could ‘mail merge’ and do basic publishing jobs.
The age of the dedicated manager
While the Finance Director and Head of Marketing understood how computers could benefit their departments’ roles, the spread of computing further into organisations brought about the first age of IT leadership. That is, as more hardware and peripherals were acquired, someone was needed to manage it all.
Accordingly, the 1990s saw the rise of the IT Manager. As the decade progressed and PCs appeared on more and more desks, as networks grew and we entered the dawn of the Internet and World Wide Web, the IT Manager became increasingly important and powerful – power that was not always a positive. At best, IT Managers facilitated growth and efficiency; at worst they were productivity blocking bottlenecks.
Either way, the classic IT Manager probably knew more about the sum of the technologies managed than anyone before (or since).
The rise and rise of the CIO/CTO
CIOs had been around for some time, but the noughties saw Managing Directors and Finance Directors of organisations large and small, public and private, rebadge themselves as CEOs and CFOs – while the increasing dependence on technology meant IT needed a place at the top table. As a result, the CIO/CTO was ushered onto the board.
What followed was a defining period for IT. The explosion of devices, the internet and accompanying security threats saw IT become almost militarised; dedicated and structured training, firm operating procedures and platoons of specialists such as DBAs, network admins, programmers and security specialists were all employed. But they all increasingly worked in siloes and the CIO/CTO was increasingly dependent on their expertise, a fragmentation that sowed the seeds of today’s challenges.
Back into the Shadows – but how to respond?
The result of greater checks and balances, more experts, proliferating technology and lack of departmental interoperability, saw all too many IT projects drawn out or cancelled, and smaller requests simply shelved.
Consequently, line of business managers started looking elsewhere for the solutions they needed to meet their own targets – this was the start of consumerisation. These line of business executives could transfer 1GB files at home, so why not at work in a multi-million pound corporation? They could download numerous productivity apps, many of which worked with each other – so they did, in less time than it would take IT to fix the printer.
This ‘Shadow IT’, when line of business executives by-pass the IT department and CIO in making IT investments, is now a growing challenge.
Today’s IT leaders need to move from managing technology to offering a well-defined service portfolio. They need to transition staff away from being experts in technology and position them as best practice exponents of service definition, delivery and user experience. Crucially they should not be afraid to look externally.
Leadership involves taking organisations through periods of change, sometimes by choice, sometimes by imposition – but always on the front foot. IT leaders have driven massive change over recent decades, but now change is being imposed.
The IT leaders of the future will be those that respond effectively – those whose departments and organisations are quickly ready to meet the challenge of consumerisation and Shadow IT by focusing on service provision, not technology management.