What is an IT professional?

Colin Thompson, deputy chief executive of BCS, looks at a new BCS programme to build the profession of the 21st century.

The glut of news stories in the past few years on high profile IT project failures has led to a rapidly developing understanding of the need to improve the quality of product and service in the IT field.

This is needed not only to stop the negative headlines on one of major fields of innovation for UK enterprise, but to secure, for business and the wider community, the real benefits that technology has to offer.

This burgeoning interest can only benefit BCS as the leading IT membership in the UK. Indeed it has already led to a significant increase in professional membership - BCS has attracted 8,000 new professional members since May 2004 - and the development of new relationships with the government and with a number of major employers of IT staff.

The need for professionalism has been given added weight by pressure from the government.

BCS's response to these issues is vital - hence BCS is implementing a major programme designed to deliver that leadership - the Professionalism in IT programme - which will be the key strategic initiative for BCS over the next two years.

Whilst this increased interest is welcome news, we recognise that we are still some way from having a mature IT profession within which professional qualifications are seen as a 'must-have' for business rather than as an optional extra for individual practitioners.

Even with the increase in BCS membership, there is still only a small minority of practitioners in membership of any professional body and few, if any, employers require professional qualifications as part of their recruitment practice.

If we are to embed professional standards and professional qualifications in IT practice - in the way in which for example personnel management standards and qualifications are now embedded in HR practice - we need to take a top down approach, working with the key stakeholders to develop a profession which reflects the needs of business and other organisations.

The real task is not to convince thousands of individual practitioners of the need for an IT profession but to convince a relatively small number of key employers and their customers.

All the indications are that the IT world is now ready for that move if given the right leadership. BCS is uniquely placed to provide it, and that is exactly what the new programme is designed to deliver.

A new vision for the profession

A new vision will be required if we are to build a profession which commands fully the respect and commitment of its stakeholders; the existing vision, built around a fairly narrow image of an activity which is essentially technical and engineering-based, simply will not provide a base for securing the necessary commitment.

If the IT profession is to be seen by government, business leaders, IT employers IT users and customers as a key element in a more professional approach to the exploitation of IT we will need an IT profession which:

  • Is defined in terms of its ability to play a full part in all stages of that exploitation  
  • Is seen as - and sees itself as - an integral part of the business 
  • Has appropriate non-technical skills - including management, business and leadership skills - as core competences alongside, rather than as add-ons to, relevant technical skills
  • Demands greater personal responsibility on the part of the practitioner
  • Is attractive to a wider group of entrants than at present - including those groups, such as women and those with ambitions to reach senior positions in business or the public service, currently alienated by the 'techie' image.

This is not to suggest that the technical and engineering aspects are unimportant, but a very high proportion of the problems we see in failed projects have their roots outside the technical area and in many cases the seeds of failure are built into the project from the outset.

If the IT profession is to make a real impact on overall capability then IT professionals must have a significant role in the whole process of IT-enabled change and, most importantly,  the necessary skills to enable them to do so.

Against this background we have identified two major strands of activity for the programme. The first is an examination of best practice in IT-enabled business change, across all business functions from the viewpoint of the CEO down; the second focuses on the development of an IT profession capable of playing a full part in that best practice model.

Best practice in IT-enabled business change

This project is sponsored jointly by BCS, the Chartered Management Institute and Change Leadership Network and is aimed at improving the capability of organisations and their senior executives to structure, lead and implement large and complex IT-driven business change.

It reflects the recognition that IT professionalism cannot be achieved simply by increasing the professionalism of the IT staff. Doing the right things and doing things right requires professionalism at all level and across all functions of an organisation.

Building the profession

This second strand of activity is intended to run alongside the first and is to develop the vision of an IT profession that will most effectively support the role identified for the IT professional.

It is the intention that the end product will be a new definition of roles, relationships, skills and qualifications for the IT profession and the IT professional of the future.

It will also impact on our understanding of the academic requirements for the profession and the support required from the professional bodies, including BCS.

Each of the above strands will be directed by a steering group, the first comprising senior figures from the business world and the second, senior representatives of the key IT stakeholders, including the major employers of IT staff and representatives of government.

Each group will be chaired by an acknowledged leader within its respective community able, among other things, to attract the appropriate calibre of membership.

John Leighfield, chairman of Research Machines plc and a past President of BCS has agreed to chair the steering group on the IT profession.

Each of the groups will be supported by a wider advisory and experience sharing network designed to ensure the widest possible input and the maximum eventual buy-in.

These activities will come together for a major conference on Professionalism in IT in the first half of 2006.

the background

The increasing interest in professionalism currently provides the best opportunity the IT industry has had to establish a well recognised IT profession.

The BCS is committed to leading that development and in February the BCS Trustee Board approved a proposal for the Professionalism in IT programme, sponsored by BCS Deputy President Charles Hughes, which will be the key strategic initiative for BCS over the next two years.

The purpose is not to increase professionalism for its own sake but to improve the ability of organisations to exploit fully the potential of IT effectively and consistently.

in a nutshell

  • There is a need to improve the quality of product and service in the IT field to secure, for business and the wider community, the real benefits that technology has to offer.
  • BCS's Professionalism in IT programme is designed to convince the key employers and their customers as to the importance of professionalism.
  • If the IT profession is to make a real impact on overall capability then IT professionals must have a significant role in the whole process of IT-enabled change.
  • The BCS has identified two major strands of activity for the programme: an examination of best practice in IT-enabled business change, across all business functions from the viewpoint of the CEO down; and the development of an IT profession capable of playing a full part in that best practice model.

May 2005