The humans get a pretty rough ride of it in Pixar’s latest film Wall-E, a story of environmental desolation and robotic romance. It’s 2700AD and with warnings of imminent environmental disaster lost in the mists of time, our Earth is a waste dump, and what’s left of the human race ekes out a sterile life high above the planet.

And yet (and remember that Pixar operates with the most powerful and sophisticated graphics capabilities available) who or what is it that has created a simple love story of such apparent allure? Whatever is capturing the imagination of the audiences and the applause of the critics has certainly not emerged of its own accord from the server farms that Pixar uses for animation.

One venture that I advise enables small and medium-sized enterprises to set up their own captive operations overseas. In its initial two years it has helped over 25 UK companies grow their own operations in India, each employing between five and 25 local professionals. Typically UK software vendors, systems integrators and games ventures, they are moving abroad not only to improve their cost competitiveness, but also to widen their search for human talent, as the UK market for relevant talent is very tight. And is the recession biting? No the business of this particular venture is still growing fast. And yet the Financial Times reported last week that one in 10 UK computer science graduates is still unemployed several months after graduation – the highest rate in any subject.

The loss of the two discs at HM Revenue and Customs, containing the personal details of 25 million of us and dismissed by Radio 4’s Today programme as “yet another IT failure”, has now been more correctly identified in the subsequent Poynter report as “entirely avoidable” and due to “serious institutional deficiencies”. To misquote former President Bill Clinton: “It’s the humans, stupid!”

I have been an active player in the IT industry since the early 1990s. My business roots then were in the well-matured global chemical industry, an industry that from its foundation in the mid-1800s was about applied technology, innovative to its heart, and grown over the subsequent decades to be all-pervasive in its impact in every aspect of our lives. Remove applied chemistry and society as we know it would just not exist.
So I was puzzled to arrive in an IT industry flexing its infant muscles, to hear the term ‘technological drivers’ endlessly articulated and hyped. I looked around, and could see little evidence of technology driving very much. What I did see, as I had in two decades in the chemical industry, was innovative technology enabling, and people – their teams, their ventures, their commerce – delivering business value through their ability to exploit the enabling capabilities on offer.

In one outsourcing deal I led at ICI, a 100-strong team of SAP project experts was transferred over to what is now Atos Origin. I was accused of losing ‘a jewel in the crown’, but it was quite the reverse – a team of SAP experts is rewarded through, and continually develops its expertise through, vigorous project implementation. Restrained within the corporate boundaries of ICI plc, they were a pride of hungry lions, always needing to be fed with the red meat of yet more SAP projects rather than the bland scraps of systems maintenance and continual improvement.

Under the aegis of Atos Origin, they could flex their muscles in a broader marketplace and I could access talent pools relevant to my needs as and when business needs dictated. My critics saw a technological world: ERP was the new software breakthrough, and SAP was its prophet. To me, it was the people, stupid.
A decade on, it is even clearer to me that the business of the IT industry is now first and foremost about people and not technology. People come with a wide diversity of innate competencies, trained skills and gained experience, and working out who is most fit for what purpose and building people processes and culture to sustainably deliver competitive value is the prime challenge for management.

Technology doesn’t self-innovate: the right kind of people in the right environment innovate technology. The engine room may be so automated that it will chunter on regardless, but a globally competitive Googleplex is a tribute to highly focused technological craftsmanship endlessly innovating and improving service capacity, quality and reliability along with a soaring asset productivity. As with the chemical industry, IT is now so all-pervasive that to remove applied IT would be to end society as we know it, and so in the endless sub-verticals and niches of our economy, highly focused application craftsmanship endlessly innovates and improves value-add in a great diversity of ways.

And so, when the sustainable competitiveness of businesses is to be strategically addressed, at the heart of the challenge is people. We may call it the Information Technology industry, but in reality – It’s the Humans, Stupid!

About the author

Richard Syles was vice president of IT at ICI in the 1990s and is now a consultant

Also from Richard Sykes:

Richard Sykes: Services at a crossroads

Richard Sykes: outsourcing and offshoring are loaded terms