Specialists must yield ground to business ‘change merchants’

"Change merchants" from other disciplines can help ICT better serve business, says CIO

Narrow technology specialists should yield some power to technically literate “change merchants” from other disciplines, so ICT can better serve business, says Ken Spagnolo, CIO at Archives New Zealand.

Spagnolo was speaking during a panel session at the Government Insights conference, held in Wellington earlier this month, that discussed how ICT had changed the way business is done, and how closer contact with business changes ICT as well. This affects both CIOs and tech staff, requiring changes in both skills and attitude.

There is growing insistence by business managers, and recognition by CIOs, that technology’s job is to serve the business. This means CIOs must speak to business managers in terms they understand, the panel decided. In addition, business people with access to broadband think they know more about ICT and where it fits into the business.

The CIO’s job is to “demystify and normalise IT… [and] be a business leader first”, says Spagnolo. This involves searching out productive ways to push the business forward, against the background of the CIO’s knowledge of how to support that change with ICT development.

This demands change, not only at the top, but in ICT staff recruitment, with narrow specialists yielding in part to “people who are change merchants from other disciplines, but with some IT knowledge,” says Spagnolo.

If you put that sort of person in a customer-facing situation, those with a background in business, or even in philosophy or literature, “you can’t accuse… [those people] of not knowing the user”, says Murali Sagi, of the New South Wales Judicial Commission.

Sagi says there is still an “attitude problem” in ICT —the idea that ICT people are “a law to themselves” and are also unwilling to admit when they don’t know the answer to a problem.

Users want predictability and accountability from ICT staff, says Sagi. In addition, as well as the attitude problem users frequently complain about, there can also be insufficient pride in doing a professional job.

Panellists and the audience vigorously debated this point — whether there was conflict between company loyalty and loyalty to the IT profession. The consensus view was that too much consciousness of professional status could lead to isolation from the customer. Professional pride has to be encouraged, but this must be balanced by an awareness of the company’s interests.

MetService CIO Russell Turner pointed out that ICT-type skills are also useful outside the field — for example, in project management and in responding to big bids. “But we should address our own area first.”

Digital technology now permeates everyday life. This means that “incoming staff are not mystified by technology — that’s not the battle,” according to David McLachlan, CIO at Wellington City Council.

Sagi commented that, unlike accountants, many ICT staff seemed not to have enough “professional pride” in themselves and how they operated. “Be good at what you know and don’t talk jargon,” he counselled.

The MetService’s Turner summed up the job of the modern CIO: “Our task is to achieve objectives for the business, just as much as it’s the task of the CFO.”

Today’s CIO needs a strategic approach. “Some people think strategic thinking is just long-term planning. It’s not. It’s about [structuring the department, so as to be] strongest at the appropriate points.”

The Government Insights conference was the second in an annual series, and was organised by the Government Insights unit of analyst firm IDC, along with conference specialist Brightstar.