What are the wants and needs of digital leaders? Brian Runciman MBCS reports on the fifth year of BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT’s survey to get the views of the digital leader and, in terms of skills, there’s never enough to do the job.

For the fifth year BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, has run a survey looking at the needs of the digital leader. Building a picture over a five-year period is an interesting pursuit, showing, as it does, that some key issues seem to remain of high concern for the digital leader. It also demonstrates the waxing and waning of terms that tend to populate Gartner’s hype cycle picture.

So, what are the top issues? Fifty eight per cent (up from 55 per cent in 2015) of participants rate business transformation and organisational change as their organisation’s top management issue for the next 12 months. Interestingly a big leap was seen in the second placed issue: operational efficiencies have risen to 55 per cent from 48 per cent in 2015.

This has superseded strategy and planning concerns from last year (48 per cent as opposed to 50 per cent in 2015). In whatever order, though, these three have been the top concerns for the full five years.

The top IT concerns

As to specific issues that need to be addressed, it’s no surprise to see the greatest number of respondents (59%) rate information security as among their organisation’s top three IT topics for the next 12 months.

This was followed closely by areas that have moved well out of the ‘jargon’ phase and into business critical applications, such as cloud computing (48 per cent). Next came mobile computing, which has dropped significantly in terms of relative position to other issues, from 53 per cent in 2015 to 34 per cent now.

This puts it only marginally ahead of IT governance and legislative changes, which ranked a close fourth at 33 per cent. This would seem to be a clear reflection of the current high profile of data protection issues here in the UK and relative to the EU’s forthcoming directives.

Big data concerns have also dropped over the last year from 34 per cent to 26 per cent, with agile methods starting to raise their profile, now at 26 per cent compared to 2015’s 22 per cent.

Some of the issues much-discussed in the media are also starting to concern organisations - a case in point being the internet of things, which has jumped from 11 per cent last year to 18 per cent this.

Other topics mentioned also reflect some things going up the Gartner hype cycle curve, such as blockchain technology. In the free text answers there were also mentions for natural language interfaces, internationalisation, self-service business intelligence and business intelligence reporting.

The skills and resources conundrum

A slight increase is noted this year in those participants who feel that their organisation has enough resources to address the management issues and IT trends that their company has prioritised - but it is still only 13 per cent that feel that way. More than half (53 per cent, exactly the same as 2015) indicate that they need enhanced IT skills among their existing workforce.

And 48 per cent require additional suitably qualified IT staff. Other areas mentioned that were of concern in staff resources and capability were cultural understanding, clearly a need as international approaches increase; viewing business support as information led - not as a technology function; building a wider capability pool to improve business resilience; and, in terms of specific gaps: experienced software migration specialists and business analysts.

The gaps were seen to be in security; data science; cloud experience; the move from legacy platform skills to digital, mobile and the cloud. Software specific skills comes up a number of occasions, with Azure, DevOps, NoSQL, .NET, Java, C# and the like name-checked. One commenter cited executives as being too remote from the day-to-day operation and a ‘lack of joined-up processes.’ Another mentioned the need for a ‘forward looking mindset rather than a “we’ve always done it this way” attitude.’

Other comments reflect the capability concerns that have plagued UK IT digital leaders for the last few. One commenter said that his problem was ‘sourcing very high skilled and strong communicators within the UK. Agile needs strong collaborators and that requires high communication skills not available within the UK’s supplemented work force from abroad.’

Another view on agile approaches was that the UK IT workforce can be seen as lacking ‘true agility - we get it at the developer level but many of our managers cannot release the “command and control” mindset.’ That mid-level problem was echoed in another opinion too: ‘skills gaps are particularly at mid-level, with senior technical skills the most difficult to acquire. We are recruiting into apprenticeships and at junior level to fill the gaps.’

In the cultural sphere one commenter lamented a lack of ‘willingness to try new, leaner ways of working - they are email bound.’

A wider educational angle was also noted as a number of participants felt that IT workers lack an external perspective of technology trends and a lack of digital understanding and the impact on the organisation.

Sleepless nights?

The final question BCS posed in this survey was: When considering upcoming changes and trends in the IT industry, what is it that is most likely to keep you awake at night? Again, the answers were a mix of the expected, and some thoughtful ideas on the longer term.

The ability to respond effectively to the need for digital transformation was a theme developing from last year - alongside the difficulty of keeping all the organisation on the same page in terms of the change culture and attitude to risk that digital transformation will require.

Other problem areas highlighted were:

  • Risks from IoT devices added to existing cyber risks. The internet of things as a security nightmare;
  • Widespread incorrect understanding of governance (most see this as a Maturity Model tick-box exercise) combined with IoT and IoT’s dependence on SOA (i.e. control is migrating from the enterprise to the internet);
  • The dearth of good engineers coming through the ranks;
  • Losing development and delivery capability in the UK through companies not investing in or believing in the UK;
  • The perception of the value of IT resources - these should be recognised by the value they bring not by the daily rate introduced by low cost and low quality offshoring;
  • An inability to retain graduate staff, allied with the poor quality of university graduates who don’t have the knowledge needed to slot into the enterprise;
  • Managing in a hybrid infrastructure world.

Some of the worries of organisations were summed up in some pithy remarks. Here’s one:

‘Did we move soon enough?’
And the main problem?
‘Staff succession: lack of.’

Of course, not all these issues are IT-only. The perennial problem of growing an organisation, now inextricably linked to its digital capability is summed up rather well with our final commenter quote: ‘the greatest challenge will be more around scaling the technical development group without diluting the team so much that quality suffers.’

Download chapter 1 of the 2016/17 Digital Leaders book, with articles on digital strategy and an overview of other useful resources.

The full research is available to BCS members in the Member Secure Area.