By Jon Musgrave
Once upon a time, not so very long ago, the role of the ‘IT Department’ was neatly confined to technology support, such as when an employee’s laptop froze, or a password wouldn’t work. The popular caricature of the IT “support” guy, is that it was and remains largely a male profession, even though that’s slowly changing. The stereotype was a nerdy, number- and gadget-obsessed geek with few social and conversational skills. That is certainly a bygone age. Chief Information Officers are today seeking new recruits to their IT teams who have great communication skills and sharp business acumen, not just tech support know-how. That’s because the role of IT in business has changed radically in a short space of time, to the point where it now plays a far more substantial part in sustaining the viability and growth of a business. Here’s our quick guide to the changing role of IT in business.
From tech support to business innovators
There’s no getting away from it: the dizzying pace of technological innovation in recent years isn’t merely a marvel, but a force that is fundamentally and irreversibly altering how business is done. The IT Department is no longer a roomful of nerds who appear every so often to fix a glitch on a company laptop, but a resource that has evolved equally rapidly, expanding its scope to impact a raft of crucial business functions, from customer support to sales and even business strategies. Most organisations now acknowledge that IT is an indispensable driving force in just about every aspect of a business that one can imagine.
It’s no longer realistic to think of IT as a single department. A recent study by Accenture, for example, revealed that more than a third (34%) of the companies surveyed now see the IT department as the primary driver of business innovation.
Curiously, this represents an apparent fall: two years ago, 71% of the companies surveyed saw IT in this way. So why the decrease? The answer almost certainly resides in the rapid change in IT infrastructure itself. Today’s IT workers are tech-proficient communicators who can be drawn upon to generate innovation throughout an entire organisation, not just a single department. Subsequently, as experts who can drive welcome change across all aspects of an organisation, the new role of the IT worker effaces the boundaries that once siloed it in one “support” function.
The new IT role: from back office to front end
Today’s IT professionals are facilitating business goals, not fixing faulty gadgets. They’re driving change throughout the business, which is why CEOs are increasingly viewing IT professionals as the people they need to deliver vital competitive advantages as well as being the technical architects of effective marketing strategies.
This massive expansion in scope is almost certainly related to the rise of “The Internet of Everything” movement, marching as it is toward a fast-approaching and increasingly within-reach future in which virtually everything we do will be facilitated or mediated by the internet. Our reliance on connected technologies for everyday tasks has been expanding at an unprecedented rate, and it shows no sign of slowing down. As a result, IT is no longer a “back office” function but has moved to the front end of business operations.
The need for workforce reskilling
The acceleration in technological innovation is bringing with it some new pressure-points. IT professionals are struggling to keep abreast of their rapidly evolving field, and the discipline is becoming much more of an interdisciplinary one than ever before in its history. A need for perpetual upskilling is accompanying the technological advances, including developing new proficiencies in artificial intelligence and machine learning as machines take on an increasingly “intelligent” role, such as those driverless robots that move inventory about without error or fatigue in vast warehouses.
However, the upskilling isn’t confined to IT pros. Just as they must show demonstrable business acumen, marketing aptitudes and great communication skills, other employees are having to become more technologically proficient as well. All enterprises relying on this fast-evolving technology are having to manage an equally rapidly developing talent ecosystem.
IT, for example, now has a finger in all the business pies it once saw as irrelevant, from marketing to sales to customer service. Companies wishing to harness these new connections have got to ditch an earlier mind-set that viewed IT as a lone geek-pack and recognise these workers as constituting a field that supports business in multiple and indispensable ways.
Today’s IT staff must face the future while understanding the past
Agility in fast-changing contexts is one of the principal keys to survival, and truly agile businesses are already seeing IT as the lynchpin of their success. Since the role of IT is expanding into all those business pies we mentioned earlier, CIOs are beginning to understand that they have to transform their workforce to keep up with the changes. They need a workforce capable of embodying a culture that not only drives innovation but enhances customer experience and assists business growth as well. That seems like an epic task, but that’s the reality that CIOs are facing every day as our world becomes smarter and smarter.
In addition to sourcing the newly-emerging interdisciplinary expertise they need, CIOs can’t neglect the role of existing legacy systems and how they relate to a business’s goals. In re-skilling their teams, they can’t afford to lose the know-how needed to maintain and enhance these legacy systems. The teams they’re building must be capable of both understanding the past as well as comprehending the present and preparing for the future.
Adapt or fail
It may be easier to talk about these evolutions than it is to deal with them pragmatically. A traditional business maxim remains as true today as it’s always been: adapt or die. Existing employees must be kept on board with the fast-changing role of IT in business, while fresh recruits must be capable of taking up their new roles with clear expectations. CIOs have a formidable but not impossible task on their hands. They must reskill legacy processes at the same time as they must seek out adaptable talent, eager and capable of crossing disciplinary fields. Working collaboratively with the CEO and the Chief Marketing Officer to pinpoint and bridge skills gaps will be crucial to this endeavour.
IT is no longer a separate entity. It’s a breathing part of the business that’s increasingly crucial to the latter’s chances of thriving in a competitive world.