What management issues and IT trends are being prioritised in the near and mid-term future by digital leaders? What additional resources, if any, are needed? Brian Runciman MBCS looks at the latest BCS Digital Leaders survey - now in its third year - to assess the strategic needs of the IT nation.

Most important management issues

The headline management issues for digital leaders have stayed consistent for three years now, namely: business transformation and organisational change; strategy and planning; operational efficiencies.

Only the order has changed. In 2011, operational efficiencies took precedence, but by 2013 it’s strategy and planning.

This year’s survey had 64 per cent of respondents rate business transformation and organisational change as among their organisation’s top three management issues for the next 12 months, followed by strategy and planning at 49 per cent and operational efficiencies at 47 per cent.

As the economy slowly noses out of the double - or triple-dip recession, depending who you ask, it makes sense that organisations are now looking to their IT leaders for assistance with their transformation and organisational change, rather than asking a department that should be adding value to fight a rear-guard action to save money - although operational efficiencies are still a top three item.

Key IT trends for 2014

We asked the digital leaders this year to take a near-future and mid-term future look at key trends. Unsurprisingly, the greatest number of respondents (57 per cent) rate mobile computing as among their organisation’s top three IT topics for the next 12 months.

This is followed closely by information security (53 per cent) and cloud computing (49 per cent). However, as we will see below, although this shows on the face of it an admirable forward-looking attitude - whilst also clearly indicating an addressing of the ‘bring your own device’ issues - when respondents had an opportunity to discuss their concerns it was the security issues that were evidently upper-most in mind.

The strong showing for cloud computing - at number three in the key trends - indicates the growing acceptance of this area as something more than a marketing term - a potential deliverer of real value to the business.

Better utilisation of existing corporate systems was a consistent theme in the areas chosen when contributors had the opportunity to vent their feelings in the ‘free’ field of the survey, too. Other items that appeared were re-platforming legacy systems, data as a service, and integration strategies - with one IT director talking about ‘joining up data systems’ (not yet big data, just data!)

Smart technologies and social collaboration came up a number of times, with one respondee specifically name-checking the Cabinet Office’s 'Digital by Default' strategy.

Longer-term IT trends

The longer-term view, interestingly, was not necessarily an optimistic one. When asked which IT topics or trends will be the top three priorities in three to five years’ time, information security was the top answer with 55 per cent. Clearly a sizable percentage of digital leaders don’t see any easy wins in security in the mid-term.

The slower rate of adoption of things on the hype-cycle curve is also reflected in the fact that the next two items have at least until recently been seen in terms of marketing puff. Cloud computing was seen by 48 per cent as a mid-term length issue, followed by big data at 47 per cent.

Other items specifically highlighted by some include such things as service transformation support to external and internal service providers, maintaining systems on multiple platforms and talent management across the whole organisation.

Those with a wider view talked about leadership in cultural change with outsourcing still considered a longer-term issue.
Where are we with resource?

A near-universal agreement can be found in the thorny issue of resources. Only 10 per cent of respondents felt that their organisation had enough resources to address the management issues and IT trends that their company has prioritised. This resource shortage came under two general headings - staff numbers and staff skills.

More than half, 57 per cent, indicated that they need enhanced IT skills among their existing workforce and 48 per cent think they need additional IT staff that are suitably qualified. Another factor was budget issues, with 37 per cent indicating they would welcome a bigger budget.

Gaps in IT skills

As The Chartered Institute for IT - we, at BCS are very interested in the skills requirements that organisations have. To that end, we asked a ‘free text entry’ question on this to allow respondents to express themselves. The results were interesting in that, compared to the ‘what keeps you up at night’ question (see below) the answers were very diverse.

Certainly the ones you may expect cropped up in newer areas: skills related to big data, agile development, mobile security and general bring-your-own-device (BYOD) issues. Professional standards and concerns about adept use of social media to address corporate goals also featured.

Said one participant, ‘Too often there is a high level of view of the requirements and needs from IT that do not reflect the challenges of delivering new services and the complexities of moving from the existing services to the new services.’

Seen as key areas for upskilling were data management awareness, data life cycle and data modelling. Usage of IT and how to configure and align IT to the business requirements is still seen by some as an area for further education - and ever-present criticism of the other board-level staff is seen in comments on the lack of business analysis awareness and a lack of understanding of what can and what cannot be achieved.

A more general comment highlighted a ‘lack of basic computing engineering knowledge’ that leads to board-level views where some think that merely buying new infrastructure will solve problems - but which actually often just erodes profit and undermines the project business case.

It’s about the business

The idea that the business and IT need to work hand-in-hand is evidently a message that is getting through as shown by some of the comments BCS received on this research. One director drew attention to the pace of change and how best utilise it, needing to understand ‘the impact of digital multi-channel trading and marketing and what to do about it.’

Others commented on needing the ability to get ‘beyond the now’, into a continuous improvement cycle and keeping up to date with current and emerging technologies. One of the problems is that there is a knowledge gap ‘about differences between platforms and how best to exploit them’ and the problems associated with the breadth of knowledge of technologies that need to be investigated.

Agile software development came up several times with other buzzy expressions like 'everything as a service' and ‘data as a service.’

One of the skills gaps in business is still around communicating ideas. Evidently getting buy-in is still difficult when the techie and the business person come face-to-face. A specific area mentioned here was the ‘ability to work in a fast and flexible way and the ability to deal with ambiguity.’

Of course this issue is a two-way street: IT really needs to understand the business as well to effectively translate business problems into an IT-based solution. However, according to one comment, and as already mentioned, there is a ‘very low (level of?) digital literacy’ within the senior management team.

Some think that the biggest gap is lack of understanding amongst senior business managers of the truly strategic role of IT in the modern organisation, and in particular - the change in management approach and the new forms of strategic thinking required.

Skills transfer, skills datedness

As is inevitable with a fast moving area such as IT, allied with the increasing uncertainty around employment that leads to shorter-term thinking from employees, there is a knock-on for skills transfer, maintenance and improvement of competencies. This is exacerbated in IT where contract temporary workers are brought in on specific projects and then leave without passing on experience, knowledge, lessons and so on.

Legacy is still an issue - from both directions. Some professionals have out of date skills - perhaps trained in areas perceived to be dying like Oracle, Microsoft and ‘very out of their depth with newer, open source and open standards-based modular systems,’ according to one commenter. Yet at the same time some of these skills are clearly needed when addressing legacy maintainability and obsolescence issues.

One director said: ‘Resources are well schooled in traditional IT but need to retool themselves to focus on the current issues such as social media and big data.’

Still with the people skills and vice versa

Despite IT’s continuing efforts to redress the geeky image it has created, there is still, says one IT director, a lack of ‘people-people - those that can work with the business and create solutions and can engage.’

Interestingly, one commenter felt that practical competence lags behind paper qualifications in various ways: ‘school/university leavers lack basic ability to operate in a work environment or construct simple business correspondence; whereas commercial education focuses on getting bits of paper rather than acquiring and applying knowledge.’

A glimpse into the future?

Is the trend toward compact smart devices and away from PCs a glimpse into an easier future? Said one commenter: ‘As devices such as tablets start to role out, the need for traditional IT skills actually goes away - gaps are removed. My Windows machine requires IT, my iPad does not, which means that the IT jobs move more to the data-centers and away from individual corporations and employees.’

Drawing together the increased awareness of IT’s strategic role in the business and the move to tablet-driven workforces means that potentially there will be an even larger role for the development and design of visually compelling business intelligence applications.

The need to integrate local and external systems, making it easy for all staff to access the resources they are entitled to use without leaving security loopholes and the like, give some pointers to future employment opportunities.

One commenter saw the need for a different kind of hybrid worker: ‘We run a mix of legacy home-grown apps and new systems, many of which are web-enabled. Getting staff that will support legacy apps but that also have the ability to author code for integration is very challenging.’

Evidently more and more small, medium and large enterprises require mixed skills sets.

What keeps IT leaders up at night?

As implied above, there was a much greater consistency of answer for this question - in fact, 99 of the 317 who made a specific comment (out 327 respondees in total - people had plenty to say!) mentioned security.

The increasing demand for information security was further specified in areas such as operational support, data integrity and particularly maintaining the right level of usable security for mobile users.

Effective identity management, the issues of cybercrime and hacking worries came up several times, combined with concerns about the amounts of potentially sensitive data now being produced, requiring secure storage and secure access.

These concerns were well summed in this comment: ‘there is an inherent conflict between consumer technology (BYOD, cloud, social media) and information security.’

One IT architect posed this question: ‘With the increasing number of portals, the migration to BYOD and the cloud, will the security policies and processes adapt to the change or leave gaping holes?’

Away from security

As in the skills gap section, the connection of the IT function to the business was never far from people’s minds.

Losing money on poor decision-making was a common theme, but with a number of threads. One respondee worried about ‘backing the wrong horse and investing in technology which becomes rapidly obsolete.’

Another posited the situation where there was a ‘failure of several cloud application providers within a short period of time.’ Others were also concerned about not getting to market fast enough with ideas that differentiated them from competitors.
In line with a recurring theme for many years in the IT arena, some still worry about allocation of blame, with one IT director worrying about, ‘business transformation, as IT does not lead the initiative (rightly) but is taking an unfair amount of the criticism for the difficulties.’

Change was generally seen as a good thing, but with the proviso that too much change in a short period is difficult to control. ‘I try to forecast a digital road map but not everything is in our control, especially if the changes that are made out of your control were not captured in lessons learned or, just due to a corporate change, that you were not informed,’ said one director.

As in the skills gap area, a lack of senior management understanding and buy-in to sustainable and practical IT solutions to provide a business edge were seen as a problem.

Hearteningly, diversity issues were also raised: ‘not enough women or minorities in senior positions.’

In keeping with the continuing economic difficulties we generally face, one business manager asked: ‘How can I make a business case for change in a tough economic cycle?’