Everyone wants a larger budget, but when only 8 per cent of participants feel that their organisation has enough resources and more than 79 per cent indicate that they need enhanced IT skills among their existing workforce or additional IT staff, the digital leader has plenty on their plate for 2015. Brian Runciman MBCS reports.

For the fourth year BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, has run a survey looking at the needs of the digital leader. And the faster the development of IT systems, the more the business views and key problems stay much the same.

For example, fifty five per cent of participants rate business transformation and organisational change as among their organisation’s top three management issues for the next 12 months. This is followed by strategy and planning (50%) and operational efficiencies (48%).

Businesses are clearly seized of the need for IT to effect change in their business dealings and internal organisation. As would be expected, SMEs and corporates have slightly differing needs: Among SMEs the issue most likely to be in the top three over the next 12 months is strategy and planning (59%).

For companies with over 250 employees, business transformation and organisational change (61% versus 40%) and operational efficiencies (53% versus 36%) are more likely to be high priorities than for SMEs.

Some issues were mentioned in the ‘free text’ part of the survey that will undoubtedly become more common concerns in the medium-term, such as, regulatory response (which perhaps only comes onto the radar when legislation is more immediately looming); and platform rationalisation.

Specifics: top IT topics

As to specific issues that need to be addressed, it’s no surprise to see the greatest number of respondents (60%) 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: cloud computing (55%) and mobile computing (53%).

These are the same three issues that were identified in last year’s survey. However, the order has changed with information security and cloud computing going up one place and mobile computing dropping two places.

Analysis by number of employees shows that information security is the top answer for both SMEs and large companies (over 250 employees).

Mobile computing is more likely to be a high priority for larger companies compared with SMEs (56% versus 45%), whereas social media is more likely to be a high priority for SMEs compared with larger organisations (24% versus 9%) - perhaps a reflection of the shift in marketing approaches.

The next concerns for the large organisation were big data (36%) and agile (22%).

Some of the issues much-discussed in the media are not yet really on the business radar in a large way, perhaps indicating their niche market status at present. These were the internet of things, with only 11 per cent representation, and 3D printing with a paltry one per cent. Other topics mentioned were agile and operational alignment; robust IT for SMEs; hosted telephony, general IT reliability issues; the government digital agenda; human-centred computing; network bandwidth growth and new platforms.

One commenter made a valid point on the range of new services becoming mainstream, saying that whilst ‘implementing digital culture and practice,’ is vital in the 21st century, organisations still need to be looking at why they would use these technologies, not just implementing technologies because of the ‘look’ of them.

The skills and resources conundrum

As noted in the introduction, only eight per cent of participants feel that their organisation has enough resources to address the management issues and IT trends that their company has prioritised. More than half (53%) indicate that they need enhanced IT skills among their existing workforce - with the same number requiring additional suitably qualified IT staff.

Strangely, activities that would support the above requirements were rather fragmented - certainly in terms of relative importance. Only eight percent included ‘identifying the capabilities of your IT professionals’ as a top three priority - with 14 per cent considering the IT skills shortage in their top three and 16 per cent counting performance management in their top three. Having said that, the survey suggests that recruitment and retention is a higher priority for more companies compared with 2014 (up from 14% to 20%).

Larger organisations are more likely than SMEs to need additional suitably qualified IT staff (58% versus 43%).

Other concerns that cropped up, although in much smaller numbers, were effective corporate and IT governance; business change expertise; and, to quote a comment, ‘better CEOs and other execs who understand digital tech and its impact on organisations’ (on which more later). Business skills and soft skills were also mentioned.

Biggest IT skills gaps: techy

The IT skills gap section garnered the biggest ‘free text’ response in the Institute’s survey. IT leaders care about this subject!

The usual suspects were much in evidence: IT security, taking advantage of cloud opportunities, networking, and the extraction of meaning from big data.

This need came from a smaller business: ‘Up-to-date knowledge of suitable SME low-cost apps and software packages that can be customised and integrated into our business.’

Concerns came from both ends of the tech spectrum, from disruptive technologies to legacy tools and services. Keeping skills current and identifying the correct new technologies for the business to implement is viewed as a big challenge, and the depth of technical skills came up in a number of guises. One comment on a specific need mentioned ‘automation and orchestration experience skills’, and delineated that comment with this rider: ‘true experience: not just app UI, connectivity experience, device experience, app experience and data experience.’

A progressive business need that IT can assist greatly with was identified by one commenter: ‘expertise in certain languages such as Brazilian Portuguese, Arabic and Hebrew’ in their digital products.

The comment from one respondent on ‘technically competent management’ leads nicely into our next section.

Biggest IT skills gaps: people

The people issues surrounding IT skills are broad ranging. Let’s start with a refreshingly honest assessment of those at the top: ‘CEO’s in large enterprises are idiots - they no (sic) nothing about the processes the IT department uses for risk acceptance and design - and are more interested in shiny things or things that make them look good. They need to think about what they are doing and stop poncing about pretending to know what they are doing when it is clear that they have never worked in IT for real, ever.’

Some comments on this problem were more circumspect (helpful?) - summed up well with the need for ‘understanding of the business and bridging the gap with the organisation’s vision,’ and, ‘understanding of the business objectives driving IT choices.’

The gap in knowledge is more than just in management for some. One person said businesses could do without ‘outdated staff looking back at when they could operate in “god mode” and dictate to everyone what they were given - and now moaning that the world has moved on. IT departments themselves are in danger of becoming the biggest blocker on effective organisational modernisation.’

One comment mentioned the need for, ‘quality managers who understand much more than simple economics - people are the key resource to be managed and encouraged, not beaten into submission.’

Other places where soft and hard skills may overlap, and mentioned specifically by commenters as problem areas included simple experience: commercial knowledge and experience; the need for more and better project managers; implementing agile methods; and fostering an entrepreneurial culture.

A further wrinkle on the ‘hybrid managers’ idea came with several commenters pointing to the importance of IT people being properly involved in selling the organisational strategy and getting it over the line and into delivery.

Some commented on the implications of outsourcing, asking for, in one case: ‘In-house staff (project coordinators) to be better capable of querying delivery of solutions provided by the private sector.’ This respondent notes that skills are lost to outsourcing and with them an ability to respond to new technologies.

Specific types of organisation face particular sets of issues. A public sector digital leader lamented: ‘As a public sector organisation it is difficult to recruit suitably qualified staff due to the limitations on salary (nationally agreed salary scales). Even training our own staff will not fully address the issues. This is further complicated by the organisation seeing efficiencies of technology adoption without the necessary investment in the backend staff to make these efficiencies a reality.’

SMEs faced something a little different, one person citing ‘silos of knowledge - not specifically because information sharing is poor, but because the organisation is small and we have specialists in individual areas.’ Some larger organisations face related situations, with some commenting on the breadth of skills now needed in IT people, making them look for those who can play multiple roles in a team and have knowledge of different technologies to support business partners.

Here’s a laudable, if tough, goal. ‘We need future proofing abilities - the organisation is running to stand still at the moment.’

Churn is an issue, with some organisations finding that the capabilities of new recruits are insufficient to slot into the existing workforce when an organisation loses existing skilled personnel.

One organisation’s loss is another’s gain in this scenario, of course, with those leaving sometimes doing so to go onto better careers, a by-product of a competitive workforce market.

One commenter gave an interesting solution to some of these issues: ‘Our organisation operates on a lean staffing model, with skills augmented from external service providers.

The model envisages the system landscape and architecture to be designed in-house and bringing in external suppliers to provide the requisite infrastructure and applications.’ This organisation still has needs though: ‘Having a good system architect and IT security experts are the key gaps that the organisation faces. Supplier (service) management is a close second.’

Biggest IT skills gaps: hybrid

As implied by the last section sometimes the skills gaps are not in the organisation itself but in their suppliers. Several commenters pointed to the issues surrounding assessing skills within their outsourced partners. One respondent complained that, ‘IT capability is being delivered by an outsource agent who puts in sub-standard agents without the skill sets necessary. This causes major delays and they incur penalties.’

Another ‘people issue’ is around an increasingly aware consumer base. A public sector digital leader said that they need people with ‘digital awareness in service design, to ensure we’re as digitally savvy as our citizens.’

Then there are the problems in actually finding those with skills in emerging trends - by definition a small recruitment pool. This creates a tension when trying to be innovative, with one digital leader saying that the organisation suffers from ‘too much time spent “keeping the lights on” and not enough time spent innovating.’

The next three to five years

Looking three to five years’ ahead, the same three main issues are expected to be at the top of the list of priorities. However, the order is slightly different, with strategy and planning coming out top (46%), followed by operational efficiencies (44%), and business transformation and organisational change (42%).

When asked which IT topics will be the top three priorities in three to five years’ time, information security is again the top answer with 54 per cent. This is followed by big data (42%), cloud computing (40%) and mobile computing (39%). The information security concern is the top answer for both SMEs and large companies.

There are a number of issues which are expected to become a higher priority in this time frame - the two showing the highest percentage increase (compared with plans for the next 12 months) are succession planning (up from 9% to 17%) and performance management (up from 16% to 23%).

Compared with the priorities for the next 12 months the IT topic showing the biggest rise is internet of things (up from 11% to 28%). 3D printing goes up only one per cent in this context.

Other areas mentioned as being of medium-term concern were supply chain integration; embedded wearable security; other wearables; and predictive analytics.

For SMEs cloud computing is expected to be the second priority (42%), whereas for larger companies big data was anticipated to be the second priority (47%).

People issues seem to be in the category of ‘we’ll get there eventually’ with the IT skills shortage, performance management and recruitment and retention issues all scoring higher is this future-looking question than in immediate priorities.

More forward-looking were some of the technical concerns that may impact the business. Mentioned specifically were concerns over the complexity of virtual environments; polyglot systems maintenance and migration to a post-Java script web.

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.

As ever, security is at the top... and came in a variety of guises: information risk and security; availability; security and stability in cloud computing and security breaches. There were a lot of mentions of topic-specific security issues around, for example, the internet of things; smart solutions; the compliance agenda, and general reputational risk. Zero-day exploits and the ever-changing nature of security threats, were also mentioned.

Some issues were perceptual, for example (all commenters’ views):

  • The build-up of technical debt by making wrong product selections;
  • The illusions of remote access: that everything is an app that appears to have no cost;
  • The speed of competitor change, with the risk of products becoming outdated;
  • The possible effects of the revised data protection legislation in 2017;
  • The corrosive effect of hype and nonsense in IT;
  • Slow change in large organisations, ticking boxes around superficial initiatives to comfort senior management;
  • Cloud hosting being seen as the panacea for everything by the business without necessarily thinking things through - hence also the integration of different cloud platforms;
  • The change in computers caused by the exascale revolution;
  • Technically incompetent management;
  • The burden of legacy;
  • Responding to change in a large enterprise environment. Agile works at small scale, but it is difficult to scale without it turning back into compressed waterfall.

Financially based concerns included (again, from comments):

  • Unannounced changes to suppliers/customers systems;
  • Provision of high-speed broadband to customers for free;
  • Cost of software licensing - Microsoft vs open source.

Some have identified bigger issues. One commenter laments ‘the complete lack of human beings involved in recruitment - applicant tracking systems have reduced the quality of the recruitment process to almost useless.’

And there are ever-present dichotomies, for example the combination of the need for computer security and privacy protection against the public expectation of easy and quick access. If this tension leads to shortcuts, that will cause problems. One commenter warns about the government’s desire to integrate and adopt collaborative data sharing without full investigation into the consequences in terms of resources and IT security.

Alarms are also raised at the risks associated with cloud computing and the US government’s stance on data stored on infrastructure belonging to US companies - with the associated data protection nightmare.

One commenter warns of a ‘collapse of trust in online systems because of over-complexity and lack of attention to resilience and security.’

Positive notes to end on

So, there’s plenty for the digital leader to do, consider, worry about, look forward to…and clearly many of them, whilst concerned about the risks, take an admirably positive view, one that takes people rather than just cold technology into account.

One commenter’s chief concern? Being ‘people-centric: developing systems that the public want to use.’

Another points to the importance of the shift of capability from traditional IT roles to a more distributed user-oriented model, whilst maintaining control and governance over the enterprise architecture.

Here are some final answers to ‘When considering upcoming changes and trends in the IT industry, what is it that is most likely to keep you awake at night?’

  • ‘Nothing - that’s why I have a CIO!’
  • ‘Not a lot - that is what claret is for.’
  • ‘I’m confident that we are up to the challenge.’

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