Who controls IT? Suits versus cardigans

In the move to align technology and business a turf war has broken out between the cardigan-wearing techies and the financial-controlling suits as both groups battle to maintain control of the IT domain.

Traditionally, the IT department has been led by those with a strong technical background and a solid understanding of IT systems.

But in today's competitive corporate climate, business knowledge is the highly-prized skill set most large organizations prefer.

The suits are not only trying to extend their influence when it comes to IT budgets, they are making a play for positions that were once the exclusive domain of the techies.

At the same time techies are ditching their cardigans for a suit and tie as they sharpen their management skills and acquire greater finance and business finesse.

So where will the next generation of IT leaders hail from - within IT or from other business areas like finance?

Proud to be a cardigan-wearing techie Brad Irvine, the Northern Territory government's ICT services manager, said IT people have a head start on management roles over the suits because those with a non-IT background "don't have a good understanding of what technology can and cannot do".

While Irvine moved into senior management from a techie background, he admits organizations are actively seeking more management skills when it comes to selecting IT leaders.

Irvine, who has overseen about $500 million worth of contracts during the past five years, believes IT management is a healthy mix of suits and cardigans.

"The main thing for IT people is to expand their horizons, build business acumen, and understand IT's role," he said.

When asked if suits are really up to the task of managing IT, Irvine said they "could be".

"You can't be all things to all people so leverage other people that are good at what they do," he said. "People can be guilty of working on the business and not in the business."

Professional development, Irvine said, "absolutely" recommends management training.

"The biggest failing is expectation setting," he said. "IT is seen as having promised a lot and delivered little."

Peter Kinsman, City West Water IT manager, believes IT today is a mix of people from both sides of the fence.

That said, Kinsman believes when considering the core competency of their CIOs and IT managers, boards of directors wants technology management in their organizations.

"I get questions from the board on technology issues, and I don't think they would question someone who had finance skills only, because they wouldn't be able to answer," he said. "The IT strategy needs to be driven by people with an IT background."

With that in mind, Kinsman is adamant that businesses could see the emergence of a whole generation of IT leaders who aren't really qualified to make strategic decisions about information management, but rather just focus on the costs.

Having done business courses himself, Kinsman recommends that IT people seek professional development which fosters business knowledge rather than more skills that are technology related only, "because it helps you to converse on all levels"

Anne Kremer, a former accountant and now True Alliance's business technology manager, said IT was a fledgling industry when she first moved into it 12 years ago.

She rose to the role of an IT leader at the clothing distribution company by keeping an eye on business processes while still keeping abreast of integration issues.

"Too often there were specialists in individual systems and not enough overall view of processes," Kremer said.

"My approach has always been [managing the] flow of data and getting across integration which is most critical for business IT people. Technical skills can be obtained and bought."

Although having a non-IT background, Kremer conceded that nobody should move from being an accountant to IT without any experience as the CIO role is "not something you can just dive into".

That said, Kremer believes with systems now more pervasive and IT touching more aspects of the business, expertise across functional areas is needed.

"Generally, people from all areas of the business work on some part of an IT system," she said. "How these interrelate effects the project's outcome [so] if you can understand how the business relates, it's easier to fill the gaps."

Furthermore, the fact that IT people are likely to have specialized skills in one aspect of IT helps the suits' case for management, according to Kremer.

Her advice for the cardigans with upper management aspirations is to broaden their career by working in other areas of the business as well as integration projects.

"They can also do a postgraduate degree, like an MBA that touches on accounting," she said, adding that a good way to determine if someone is fit for management is to give them a lead role in an IT project and see how they deliver.

The biggest risk of putting a suit at the helm of IT, Kremer said, is gaining the respect of the techies.

"If they behave superficially and don't get involved with projects, they won't have the capacity to fill the gaps," she said. "They simply won't be able to properly assess if a project is on track. Without sufficient knowledge and respect you won't find a solution if the IT people think the CIO is some accountant that only cares about money. I've always got a t-shirt on."

Admitting he isn't a suit or a cardigan, Wattyl CIO John Croker began his IT career with a chemical engineer's hard hat.

Croker, who structured an information strategy around paint supplier Wattyl and wrote it as a business strategy, has worked in food production, industrial and specialty chemicals industries; he was offered the company's first CIO role after a consulting exercise.

Croker said engineering skills are well suited to IT management because engineering is about delivering a tangible result.

"I'm very big on project-based management. I want to see an ROI and am strict on this," he said.

Like Kremer, Croker said winning the trust of techies is critical.

Leadership talent can come out of anyone," he said. "To overcome [technical incompetence], invest time learning and ask plenty of questions."

- with Siobhan McBride

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