Michael Gough FBCS CITP, chief executive officer of the National Computing Centre, looks at the way forward to develop IT professionalism in the UK.

The IT industry has existed for over 50 years. In that time, technology has enabled dramatic improvements in productivity, in business efficiency and in our ability to both communicate and trade in a global market.

The role of the IT professional and the contribution they bring to business effectiveness remains largely misunderstood. So much so that employers consistently fail to understand their dependency on information systems (IS) and their need for IT professionals in their business.

To some extent this is still fuelled by the perception that IS projects consistently under deliver. However most current research in this area points at endemic business failure, (or worse, incompetence) being the real challenge. IT, given its ubiquity within the business, is often inextricably linked to, but not of itself the root cause of, the problems.

The career model for corporate IT has also undergone many changes in the last 20 years and, coupled with the trend during the 1990s towards outsourcing (principally driven by short-term cost-cutting), there is little clarity on the career path in the sector.

What do you tell a 19 year-old about the career prospects in IT in UK business? Add to this a commodity emphasis on the value of IT and there remains little to promote IT as a career choice.

However, with the government's activities through e-skills UK, and the recent appointment of a head of government IT profession by the Cabinet Office to address issues of capability and capacity for effective IT in the public sector, there is significant momentum behind a goal of 'professionalising' the IT industry. The achievement of such a goal is a critical success factor to the UK's medium-long term prosperity.

There is a real opportunity for success, but only if there is enough critical mass, which is unlikely with the current structure of the IT intermediate sector and the government’s own initiatives.

No single player is big enough to embrace the population of users, practitioners or executives, or broad enough with respect to sectoral representation and failure will have a detrimental effect to our on-shore service industries that rely so heavily on IT.

Historically, the UK has been excellent at developing new technologies, but not so great at turning these developments into real usable applications, and fairly mediocre at the final application within the increasingly competitive global environment.

I believe that the successful businesses in the global economy will be those that excel in the strategic management of information assets while applying ever-advancing technology to the best effect within their organisation, be they in the private or public sectors.

The very survival of the UK as leading economic power will be determined by our collective ability to use our knowledge-base and new enabling technology better than our competitors.

The current signs are not great. Developing nations such as India and China seem to understand this better than we do, and are working accordingly. There is a need to significantly change the perception of IT and informatics professionals, making IT and information-based roles desirable career choices if the UK is to remain a leading economy.

Business change projects are, more often than not, enabled by new or adapted information systems. Technology is now considered the primary agent for change across all businesses – and as a consequence IT professionals are increasingly seen as the natural leaders of business transformation.

A combination of business knowledge allied with problem solving and project management skills developed by IT professionals ensure they are uniquely positioned.

Business change projects, however, can be costly undertakings. Also, with increasing emphasis on compliance with legislative frameworks, there is a now a professional maturity that is driving the IT function to develop into a true profession.

In recent years, BCS has grown its membership significantly, and over the last 12 months has been facilitating the development of a common understanding of professionalism across the industry. Central to this has been the Professionalism in IT programme, and the work of its steering board chaired by John Leighfield CBE.

The steering board has been guiding a number of strands of activity shaping the agenda for a change to develop a truly all embracing IT profession.

However, to make this change happen, and stick, there needs to be a coming-together of the key players to work together and champion the common cause. I am very pleased to say that e-skills UK, Intellect, my own organisation – National Computing Centre and BCS are all engaged in this process.

The work leading up to the ProfIT conference has galvanised these organisations into action behind the leadership shown by Colin Thompson - BCS's deputy CEO.

This alliance which will informally be know as the ProfIT Programme Alliance, will coordinate its activities over the coming year to ensure that the initial work of the BCS Professionalism in IT programme continues to the next stage.

ProfIT programme alliance

ProfIT programme alliance
(Click for larger image)

An important driving force lies on the demand-side of the industry: the corporate end-user community uniquely represented in the NCC membership communities. Many people are now coming into IT management roles from outside the conventional engineering route.

In NCC's 40th anniversary year the Centre is running a cross-sector research programme to determine and promote best practice IS management approaches and, with particular reference to SFIA, championed by e-skills UK, considering how the corporate IS function should be structured to the increasing agility required by UK organisations.

The ProfIT Programme partners are already working towards the goal of establishing a true IT profession.

NCC and Intellect are already working towards the realisation of sustainable benefits to the UK economy by raising the standards of professionalism in the demand and supply side of the IT industry.

Through the employer-driven strategy of e-skills UK and the vocational and professional recognition of IT skills by BCS, the ProfIT Programme is already shaping the capability and capacity of the UK workforce.

With the combined commitment and capabilities of the alliance partners the ProfIT Programme will showcase IT as the key enabler of business transformation, make IT the profession to be part of in the 21st century and provide the UK with the professional capability to keep at the forefront of the global knowledge economy.

Michael Gough is the chief executive officer of the National Computing Centre, the UK's leading IT membership organisation serving the corporate end-user, vendor and government communities.

In a nutshell

  • The role of the IT professional and the contribution they make to business effectiveness remains misunderstood.
  • No single player is big enough to embrace the population of users, practitioners and executives, but failure will have a detrimental effect to our IT-reliant on-shore service industries.
  • The very survival of the UK as  a leading economic power will be determined by our collective ability to use new enabling technology better than our competitors.
  • BCS has been facilitating the development of a common understanding professionalism across the industry through the Professionalism in IT programme.
  • e-skills UK, Intellect, the National Computing Centre and BCS are all engaged in championing the common cause of professionalism.
  • The alliance will be known informally as the ProfIT Programme Alliance.