Technology chiefs must evolve into information leaders

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Technology chiefs must evolve into information leaders

Tomorrow's IT leaders will require different skills.

Over the years, we have seen great change in the role of the IT leader.

His job ­ – and it was usually a man ­ – has had various titles, from head of computer branch, data processing manager or head of computing to the more modern variants of IT director and chief information officer (CIO). More often than not, these roles were two levels down from the board, reflecting how senior executives viewed the importance of IT.

Despite job adverts that call for a CIO who is strategically minded, talks the language of business and can help to envisage the future, the reality for most IT leaders is that their executive colleagues would like to treat IT as a utility.

Some would argue that an IT presence in the boardroom will not be required in the future. We have a generation growing up used to the ubiquity of technology. When they become business leaders, they will be so familiar with IT that they will no longer require a specialist in the field. This is an argument that has some persuasive power.

But when the world was dominated by the IBM mainframe, IT was a capital-intensive business. Few companies could afford their own computing and those who could focused on maximising the utility of this expensive piece of equipment. The key skill was to program around the limitations of processor speed, memory and storage. In this environment, the most technically talented programmers ended up being the leaders.

Over time, hardware costs came down, real-time transaction processing became feasible, and we had the luxury of using more “natural” languages such as Cobol. And so it became possible to design user-friendly systems with onscreen access to information. Leaders with a background in systems analysis and design came to the fore.

The next evolution was low-cost client/server technology, which saw a dramatic decrease in the purchase and running costs of IT. Even small businesses found having their own systems was economically viable. This, coupled with the availability of off-the-shelf, configurable business applications, meant procurement and implementation skills became more important; leaders needed the skills of the project manager and the business-IT consultant.

The ubiquity of the web has had a further significant impact on the role of the information leader. From managing a self-contained asset base of their own servers, networks and desktops, companies now connect via the internet to suppliers and customers, delivering services through a mix of in-house and outsourced resources. IT is seen as an enabler of efficiencies through transforming businesses processes and squeezing operational costs. This is the current agenda for most CIOs, so it is not surprising the skills of programme and change management are much in demand.

With each successive wave of change, the IT leader’s role has increased in complexity. Today’s CIO needs to be a businessman first to justify expenditure, talking the language of business benefits as well as understanding current and future technology. They must also possess the influencing skills to push the information agenda to the benefit of the organisation.

So what is the future role of the information leader? The answer depends on how far ahead we look. As organisations seek to implement efficiencies, the classic role of the CIO will continue. But as businesses transform, there will always be a place for a leader whose main focus is information.

Our current notion of organisation is based on the command and control hierarchy. The board are the thinkers, setting objectives, direction and policy. Middle management applies the resource constraints and formulates plans for their teams to execute. This structure served us well through the 20th century. In the 21st century, with a world of accelerating change, there are signs this notion of enterprise may need to be revised.

It is now possible to set up profitable and viable organisations focused a round communities of interest that are not command and control hierarchies. Rather than having a sharp divide between thinkers and doers, the new notions of organisations will be based on harnessing the creativity, commitment and enthusiasm of the people involved. These businesses will need leaders whose focus is on information and perhaps they will exercise leadership in completely different ways.

So the future is bright only if information professionals are willing to adapt to new technologies, new ways of working and even new paradigms of organisation. We may even have to revise our notions of leadership.

To paraphrase a quote from the Chinese philosopher Lao Tse: The best leaders are those whose people say: “We did it ourselves”.

David Chan is director of the Centre for Information Leadership at City University London, and is a former head of business systems at the BBC. The centre is focused on developing the CIOs of the future.

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