Putting together the right team can be the difference between success and failure, as Sven Goren Eriksson is only too acutely aware. The English team has proved time and again that having technical ball skills is no guarantee of success. Talent alone is not enough; the England manager needs to create a team with the perfect cocktail of temperament, experience and group dynamics to ensure we do well in The World Cup this summer.
Scoring with the business also demands CIOs assemble the right mix of individuals. The exact make up of that team will depend on whether IT is playing in the back-room support league or is a premier division strategic player.
On the one hand, there are traditional ‘keep on the lights’ IT shops that support the business. They are reactive, run the IT systems and develop new services as requested by the business.
"You need staff who can articulate – not just dumb it down for people. It’s a different kind of challenge, not just communication, but helping to achieve goals"
Darin Brumby, group IT director, FirstGroup
Increasingly there is a shift towards IT becoming a strategic player in the business, not just supporting, but proactively influencing and driving business value. In this kind of IT scenario, the staff must be more than backroom techies. They must live, breathe and become a part of the business.
Getting cosy with the business means flexing new skills. But where should they build this muscle? The answer is not in the hard technical skills area – it is the soft tissue that needs bulking up. However, this goes beyond simply employing people with good communications skills. IT staff need the confidence, expertise and business knowledge to be able to influence business people, rather than simply translate techie speak into business lingo.
“You need staff who can articulate – not just dumb it down for people. It’s a different kind of challenge, not just communication, but helping to achieve goals,” says Darin Brumby, group IT director at FirstGroup.
Some companies are creating new roles – often called relationship managers or account managers – to provide this service.
It is certainly a phenomenon that Stephen Elliott, a research manager for IDC’s enterprise systems management software service, has begun to see more often: “I think that there’s a priority for these skills and more budget is being allocated to the problem,” he says.
Rather than simply providing what the business wants, the relationship managers will work out what the business needs and use their communication expertise to persuade them to follow their suggestions.
CIOs can only begin to create this kind of relationship if the IT department has earned the trust and respect of everyone else in the company. Before IT can become this strategic powerhouse, it has to prove that the every day stuff is working like clockwork.
"CIOs are where financial directors have headed for the last 10 or 15 years. They used to be a support function and now they are driving the company"
Chris Dunne, head of IT and operations business management, Voca
That means ensuring IT operations are stable, managed well and there is continuity of business delivery. “Boards still expect CIOs to be the light switch person, so we still need those skills in the team, whether they are internal or external,” says Brumby.
Second, establish a track record for project delivery and service management, ensuring continuous process improvement that the business can easily recognise and appreciate.
Only with these elements rock solid can the IT organisation engage in the business of creating business value. “Then CIOs are not just managing IT, but they are managing how well their organisations are exploiting IT,” says Dr Sharm Manwani, a former CIO and now a senior faculty member at Henley Management College.
Relationship management extends beyond company walls and the trend for outsourcing makes these communications and relationship skills essential.
“We’re seeing a dramatic increase in demand for these types of people as we see ever-increasing outsourcing,” says Simon Wassall, European managing director of global recruitment specialist Harvey Nash.
He sees more companies moving away from single-sourced outsourcing to multi-sourcing arrangements. “As a consequence, account managers and business relationship managers are increasingly important,” he adds.
With the maintenance and basic development taken care of by outsourcers, staff left in-house will be targeted more keenly on innovation and creating value – and that includes having technical expertise as well as business acumen. “I think the days of the pure techie and developer are rapidly coming to an end,” suggests Chris Dunne, head of IT and operations business management at payments company Voca (formerly BACS).
“Typically, what’s going on across the industry is testing and coding is going offshore because it’s easy to package up, but you still find you can’t outsource core people who do understand technology,” he says.
Good technical skills
Tim Walker, partner in consulting at business advisory firm Deloitte, agrees that CIOs cannot survive alone with an internal team of relationship specialists and no technical acumen.
“I think all organisations should retain the architecture function, which does require a good dose of technical skills,” he says. “They are the crown jewels in the IT organisation and they drive solutions for new requirements. If I were a CIO, I would want that,” says Walker.
Paul Coby, CIO at BA, also sounds a note of caution: “If you have a lot of people just doing relationships, you’re actually building an overhead.” Coby says that he employs three types of managers: deep techies, involved in technical implementations such as SOA; IT managers good at managing technology; and a third group without deep technical nous, but “a passion for technology”, he says.
“It’s really important you get the right blend of skills and experience,” he advises. “What I’ve had to do – and it starts at the leadership level of the department – is assemble a team with top quality IT and business experience.”
Squad make up
Coby’s team is a mix of technical and business abilities, gleaned from both working in BA and externally. But that mix is essential. Dunne at Voca believes that that the overall trend is for basic development work to go offshore, while staff members onshore will have higher level skills.
"What I’ve had to do – and it starts at the leadership level of the department – is assemble a team with top quality IT and business experience"
Paul Coby, CIO, BA
Outsourcing is one of the elements contributing to reducing IT staff numbers in companies. A February report from strategic business advisory firm The Hackett Group contends that world-class IT organisations hire managers and staff with far greater business knowledge and with a higher percentage of advanced degrees. They pay more for these people – a whopping 32 per cent more, according to the research – but also rely on 28 per cent fewer staff than typical companies.
“Although companies have fewer people, a lot of them are more senior people,” says Philip Carnelli, research director at Hackett Europe. Companies do not need banks of developers as they are buying in application packages or outsourcing development.
“A decade ago I used to work with banks that had large application development departments with hundreds of staff – all highly educated technical software developers – and now companies just don’t do that. These days it’s all about how you customise your SAP systems, which requires fewer staff but with higher skills,” says Carnelli.
Finding this new breed of IT and business hybrids is not going to be easy. Universities have responded to market changes and graduates are becoming more business focused but there is still a shortage. “I think that the business/IT mix is a real challenge for most organisations. It’s pretty rare to find people with breadth in both areas and it’s a problem we have internally at Deloitte. In most IT organisations you’re not going to get top performers unless you pay top money and right now there’s definitely more demand than supply, particularly in London. We are a big graduate recruiter in Deloitte and we spend a lot of time and money on that but we would recruit more people if we were able,” says Walker.
Technical ability is still key but IT staff also need to talk business language and be able to stand up to business colleagues, telling them when they are wrong. Brumby says he wants employees who are adaptive, with a passion for learning. They need to be politically astute and work well under pressure.
“Finding talent is a very important job and too often played down in organisations. It’s hard work to find top talent and obviously while they are selling themselves to you, you are selling the company to them,” says Brumby.
He has a two-pronged approach to interviewing prospective employees. To test candidates’ technical expertise he will ask ‘closed’ questions, requiring a specific answer. But what he finds more revealing is to ask an open question about how the candidate would deal with a particular situation. How someone tackles those questions can reveal much about whether they would be good at influencing or negotiating.
“In IT, you influence the agenda and the outcome – it’s critical for project delivery,” he says.
Given the scarcity of these skills it is hardly surprising that there is an increased focus on hanging on to people with the right attributes. So companies need to look inside their departments and nurture people with the right hybrid skills. They also need to look beyond the confines of the IT department and find business people who could also fill the gap between IT and business and become relationship managers.
“In the modern, end-to-end service provision organisation, the CIO has to be right on top of the people agenda,” says Walker.
“It’s about the CIO exhibiting leadership, interacting with their people and thinking do we develop what we’ve got, hire in people, or a mix of the two. The people agenda is huge and the real point from the people side is turning technologists into a professional IT organisation.”
But companies are not doing themselves any favours. “Training spend is about one per cent and it’s around technical skills as opposed to leadership,” points out Andrew Morlet, head of Accenture’s strategic IT effectiveness division. “It’s pretty rare to find an organisation that has really worked that out with relationship management and vendor management. It is getting more attention but it is in the early stage.”
Staff development is key. It takes vast amounts of effort that goes way beyond spending money on training.
At BA for example, there are mentoring schemes, a ‘master practitioner’ programme, that can help staff with problems outside a formal training environment and there are communities of web, database and project managers within the company. “The cornerstone of our business plan looking forward is to improve skills – everyone’s skills,” says Coby. To help achieve that, the company is using the SFIA e-skills framework, which helps employers of IT professionals standardise on how they audit skills, plan future requirements, as well as standardise on job titles and functions. And that development can mean secondment outside the IT function, contends Morlet. “In larger companies that have a business change function, you’re seeing people move in and out across the IT function and I think there is a need for developing a leadership development curriculum and courses for building specific skills.”
Taking it from the top
Building a successful IT team has to come from the top. These changes further down the ranks will only happen with a forward-thinking CIO at the helm.
“Smart CIOs are business solution managers and good at processes. They can really help the business and look ahead. That space of exploiting IT is different and requires different personality types. On one side you need to be analytical in terms of decisions, but on the other there’s lots of ambiguity. It’s about building relationships. The types of skillsets are different,” says Manwani. But with these different skillsets emerging in CIOs and throughout the IT department we can expect even greater changes to come.
As Dunne suggests: “CIOs are where financial directors have headed for the last 10 or 15 years. They used to be a support function and now they are driving the company.”