Closing the gap between IT and the rest of the business world Digit Leader Summit, 2017

24 May 2017

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Digit Leader Summit 2017

This was the first time I’ve been to a Digit event. In fact, it was the first time I’d been to Dynamic Earth.  Neither the event nor the venue disappointed.   The whole day was excellent in fact, and admirably organised by Digit FYI (and no, they are not paying me to say this).

In my opinion (and that of several people I talked to subsequently), the most interesting session was the second one, focusing on organisational culture. In particular, Dr. Alastair Rennie, IT Director at Westcot Financial, spoke such common sense that, if he is representative of the breed, you wonder why techies have such a bad reputation for soft skills.  Yet they most certainly do, at least judging by the show of hands around the room when we were asked if said “bad reputation” was justified. 

Another show of hands suggested that the majority of the room believe they are “leaders” as opposed to “managers”.  Much of this second session considered how individuals might improve their leadership and communication skills.  A lot of this would have been very familiar to the average HR conference, but I got the impression that there is a feeling in the senior-level IT community that this is relatively new stuff. One speaker said that the issues being discussed today had moved on considerably from the events that Digit (then ScotTech) held in previous years. In particular, there is now far more awareness of the integral role that IT plays in most businesses, with the emphasis moving from conventional, albeit important, presentations on more overtly technological matters, to today’s sessions which were underscored by an appreciation of the important role that technology plays within businesses.

It seems clear to me that as IT has grown in importance over the last decade or so, it has, of necessity, outgrown its “geeks in the bunker” image and had to engage with the “real world” of colleagues and customers, although there were still vestigial traces of the gaps in understanding between marketing and IT in some of the presentations.  Anyone familiar with the Dilbert cartoons and the chasm that is portrayed there between the engineers and the sales and marketing types will know exactly what I mean. Just to emphasis this point, one speaker recalled how in his first job the IT team was located out of sight - in the basement!   

Certainly, there is still the stereotypical image of left-brain dominant technical people not being on the same wavelength as right-brain dominant creative types. This was evident in a later paper in the same session, by Chris Rivinus, Head of IT Business Systems at Tullow Oil. Chris talked about how “culture” becomes engrained in different areas of a business (the well-known silo mentality) and especially in IT departments, where it creates a “Like hires Like” mentality, thus further reinforcing the prevailing orthodoxy and internal culture of the tech team.  Liz Horan, Director of Digital Strategy at Media Moxie, recalled how one US organisation she worked with had just such a silo mentality and how she helped break this down by grouping individuals around their particular sporting interests – baseball, (American) football, lacrosse, etc. – and once everyone discovered what they had in common it became easier to bridge the divides and get greater synergy between the teams. 

An earlier paper in the first session, by Kevin Findlay, CIO & Board Director, CCG, revealed these fault lines still exist.  While stressing the importance of data and technological improvement in two totally different case studies, he said customers are not always right and “if you are too customer-centric you can bust the business”.  I know what he meant, but the impression I got from his paper was that the gap between commercial and technical departments, while closing, is still quite wide in some places. 

However, if there was one thing that the second session demonstrated for me, as a non-techie, it was that this gap IS closing rapidly.  IT is now so much more important to business that the C-Suite has realised that their techies now have to be fully integrated, not just with the rest of the business but with the customer base as well. It’s by being subject to these “wrong customers” that IT will learn to work even more closely to achieve what are, after all, common business goals.  In my corporate days as an MD, IT were the people who we called when the computers stopped working. On the very rare occasions we allowed the techies to meet our customers they were always accompanied by an account manager or similar, to stop them saying the wrong thing (usually, “that will never work”).  Today, IT may still think “that will never work”, but they are now suppressing their instincts and taking a more commercial approach, to wit, working with their account manager/sales/marketing colleagues to find a way to make it work, before the competition does. And if this DIGIT conference has (as I believe it has) inspired IT leaders and helped us get closer to that goal then it will have done its job.

Alastair Blair, thePotentMix

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