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8 August 2006

IT managers - stick to what you know

By Andrew Clifford

IT managers are often enthusiastic for a broader business role. But this can undermine the value that IT can bring.

It is really important that those of us who work in IT can work effectively with our non-IT colleagues. We need to explain the opportunities and limitations of IT, without confusing them with technical detail. We need to make our contribution to business change.

Some would take this further. They would say that IT is so significant that IT managers should propose and lead more general business change. IT should move on from its technical background.

I think it is dangerous if IT managers move away from the technical detail into a more general role.

The most obvious reason is that someone, somewhere, needs to understand the IT. If the person from the IT department does not, who does? The IT contribution needs to be made by somebody who deeply understands the opportunities and limitations of IT, not a general manager who just happens to work in the IT department. You can not leave the IT decisions to an outsourced IT supplier. They will recommend what is profitable for them, not necessarily what brings best value to you.

Even if they claim to have moved away from the technical detail, those with an IT background are still tainted by IT. They speak the language of IT. They see business change in terms of IT change. They find it hard to recommend business change without an IT project.

Some would say that IT managers should take a leading role because no one else is as well positioned. Only IT can see the breadth of business activity, and can change the information "life blood" of the business.

This is folly. Businesses are run on commercial, political and social lines. Finance and Human Resources (HR) have a much more accurate perception of overall business forces. Despite their good position, finance and HR managers do not dare to take a leading role in business change because they understand that their specialism is only a supporting role. Changes to business operations need to be lead by the operating departments themselves, not by a specialist group, however well positioned.

Some would say that IT managers should take a leading role because no one else is as well qualified. IT is an excellent training for business change because of the systematic attention to detail and the need to run complicated projects.

This is also folly. Businesses are not as systematic as IT. Business change requires commercial and political skills, not systematic detail. A business process model and project plan coming from the IT department will not change the business.

Those of us who work in IT should stop being so apologetic about our IT credentials. IT brings value because the technology of information storage, transformation and communication can greatly improve business efficiency. Our role is to understand the opportunities and limitations of IT and to explain these to our non-IT colleagues. We do not become more business focussed by becoming less technical. We just become less valuable.

Next: Do you really want to save money?

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