Much of what is written about IT focuses on new innovations and their impact on our society. Not enough is written about how important the management of IT systems can be. Perhaps this is because people assume that 'IT management' is just part of 'management'.

For me, the problems often lie in the assumption that graduates or engineers who rise through the ranks somehow acquire the requisite management skills by a process of osmosis.

There are a number of issues that management have to solve that are thought to be outside their remit. On top of that there are a few key challenges that relate purely to high level management which the IT employee will not automatically be ready to deal with.

The issues are informed by the history given that this is a new discipline only just reaching its adolescence.

So where are we?

Much of the publicity surrounding IT reflects on the success, or otherwise, of management to oversee its implementation and operation. In fact the IT industry in general appears to thrive from a regular therapeutic session of schadenfreude. Raising managerial standards is not about humiliation, rather accountability.

Management, and in particular its executive members, are responsible for the effective stewardship of the company. If they aren't, then what are they paid for? Too often senior management are treated with derision by staff, which is not healthy. For an organisation to be successful it needs a respected senior management team that has gravitas.

So what makes management so difficult when there is so much written on the subject? There are texts on managerial best practice, the desirable attributes of a manager (e.g. integrity, honesty, thought leadership, etc) and even a plethora of complementary methodologies and tools (e.g. balanced scorecard, risk management matrices, etc).

In answering the question IT practitioners need to understand at the outset that management is not a science but rather an art that morphs itself to suit the culture and climate of its organisational environment.

There is no single panacea that can be waved or process that can be enforced to make everything fine. Managerial efficacy is heavily influenced by the quality of its members with their individual aspirations and agendas. That's why the emphasis should be on team work, with a common aim.

Trip down memory lane

Not wishing to linger on the good old days, but in the 1970s any company that had a computing department relied on their computer operations manager. Computing was viewed as a nice-to-have addition to either existing support services or R&D facilities.

In the main the managers were not scientists who were fully au fait with the technology, but had sufficient technical knowledge that was underpinned by a sound foundation in operational management.

Typically it involved running operator shift patterns, managing archiving and storage, looking after the line printer, and of course sorting out third-party engineers and their prolific maintenance schedules which, if left unchecked, resulted in extensive downtime.

In the 1980s we saw the introduction of distributed computing and the increased dependency on an internal computing department. The demand to get the computing power out of the computer room and much closer to the point of use meant that the support staff had to be much more technically astute.

They had to capitalise on the installed capabilities of the equipment so that they could fine tune them to maximum effect. It wasn't just about the distribution of mainframes, midi or mini-systems. It also required an in-depth understanding of the workings of the networking infrastructure that linked individual components.

As a consequence the team needed more than just an operations manager, and the organisation needed someone with executive thinking. Hence the birth of the role of the IT director. This post was usually filled by a technically minded person who took a detour in their career and rose through the ranks of management to the dizzy heights of executive management.

The proliferation of the PC in the 1990s saw a real step change in the way that computing was made available to the masses. The consequence of giving power to the people was a need for demand management.

The exponential growth in demand had to be met by an equal increase in available budget. No longer was computing a nice-to-have toy, it was becoming an integral part of the office environment. Everyone wanted a PC and they all had to be interconnected via the installed network infrastructure, so that they could work as a holistic integrated system.

Due to the commercial impact of this substantial investment, in what was becoming IT rather than just computing, there was a requirement to appoint a manager that bridged the gap between business users and technicians.

In doing so the successful person was responsible for assessing and advising the executive of all the associated business risks of handling vast quantities of information, as opposed to data, in business speak. The CIO as such took responsibility of the way that corporate information was generated, processed and stored.

As technical innovations increased and the implications of further investment in technology had far reaching implications, many organisations assigned a CTO to work alongside the CIO in managing the ever increasing investment.

As the end user became more familiar with the offerings of new innovations in the 21st century, the realisation of their benefits took on a totally different aspect. Mobility, for example, had a significant impact on an organisation's culture which necessitated the involvement of HR to revise flexible working policies. The ability to work outside the office also impacted Facilities Management as there would be less demand for expensive real estate.

Fully dispersing the technology out into business end-user environments has meant that  IT management is no longer a separate entity. They need to be part of the organisation's business management structure thereby ensuring the alignment of business and technology strategies.

As a consequence, the CIO role has evolved into renaissance man: the ability to map the advantages of innovations in technology within a business context requiring a degree of political, business and technical dexterity that was unforeseen a decade ago.

In many ways IT evolved with a delusion of grandeur, with management adopting a hands-off, leave it to the experts mentality. But as it evolved this warranted more than just a CIO or CIO/CTO combo as the challenges about the huge investments and the need to realise business benefit mounted.

Challenges for IT management

Many of the day-to-day issues which contribute to managerial stress are generic with a twist that many aspiring IT graduates who have risen through the ranks struggle to grasp.

Budget management - doing-more-with-less is not discussed in management schools as much as it should. The ability to maintain or improve service quality whilst reducing costs is the unenviable position that an increasing number of executives find themselves in customer management - any senior manager of a core service organisation will be concerned with customer relations. Assessing delivered performance against key metrics and perceived customer satisfaction is essential in assuring quality that underpins any brand

Demand management - having a healthy attitude towards the development of the workplace and its working practices raises user expectations.

Staff management - one of the most underestimated challenges, yet the most demanding. During turbulent times it involves the trauma of having to make once valued staff redundant. Then of course there is always the ongoing challenge of trying to recruit and retain key skills.

In reality the management of technology requires the skills of more than one CIO, who may be assisted by a CTO. A big ask of IT management is to identify and implement relevant technological innovation whilst ensuring its successful stewardship going forward. With IT managers having the technical background, the pressures of the position are often related more to the lack of business acumen and the ability to manage the installed environment.

The issues facing IT are similar to other branches of corporate management. However, IT does have its own idiosyncrasies that are attributable to the complexities of the environment. For example budget management has to respond to the constant demand by its customers to adopt the latest product released whilst maintaining existing systems.

The money spent on today's latest initiative will have repercussions in ongoing support and maintenance charges in subsequent years. In addition corporate and social responsibility is another area which is definitely admirable, but can increase operational costs.

Three key attributes of a good managerial team

Recognising that the corporate investment in technology needs a management team with skills drawn from an eclectic base is one thing, ensuring they demonstrate key attributes is another.

Governance, in its simplest from, is about the effective use of the installed technology base and the investment in new initiatives or innovations. Although managing the costs is important, ensuring that regulatory and legislative risks are controlled is crucial. After all it is the company assets being protected, not just IT’s, and the negative impact of any indiscretion on company brand far outweigh the cost of implementing preventative procedures.

Given that technology is so embedded within the corporate business, it is essential that the governance process involves senior business representatives to ensure the alignment of corporate and IT strategies. Unfortunately the participation in such joint efforts is often viewed with a degree of scepticism by the business community who think that IT is purely a back office process that responds to their requests.

Better organisations tend to be those that endorse a more mature, symbiotic partnership between back office and the business income generators. It is only through this effective partnership can a truly integrated, coherent, corporate strategy encompassing the elements of both technology and commerce be implemented.

CIO stress levels usually rocket when trying to balance the demands of the internal business community to introduce more enabling technologies against the edicts of the executive board to reduce budgets. The pressure is exacerbated when the CIO has to delve into corporate politics when horse-trading the requirements of one business unit against another.

Ensuring that the organisation is actually going to get a return on its investment is difficult for the CIO when a large proportion of the total cost of ownership lies in the business within which it is embedded. The costs and benefits are opaque because IT is now so integrated and dispersed across a number of business units. Getting actual figures is an area where political astuteness within the team is critical.

Given the depth to which technology has now become embedded within the fabric of the organisation, governance must be business aided.

Supplier management tends to be regarded as more of a master-slave relationship than a partnership. Today suppliers are often best placed to proffer the business benefits of recent technological innovations even if their raison d’être is sales target driven. That shouldn't be surprising as providers of technological goods and services base their own business plans on the assumption that there is use, and hence a market, for their products.

The relationship with suppliers needs to not only involve those with technical and service delivery specialism, but those with a penchant for maturity and commitment. Too often suppliers are seen as those who are keen to get the contract, but left wanting in supporting its implementation and operation.

Indeed the urgency with which issues are addressed once the order is signed is often a concern. It is essential that suppliers attain the trusted status they seek, and indeed need, in order to become an important component in the governing process. Knowledge of specialised, emerging technologies is crucial in today’s business markets. Clients need trusted suppliers as partners if the complexity is to be effectively managed.

A good management team will recognise resource and skill shortages that are essential for the effective deployment and operation of new technologies and work with suppliers to fill that gap. Unfortunately the stigma associated with the earliest outsourcing deals have affected supplier relationships and the eagerness to strike up partnerships.

However, suppliers have an opportunity to become a key player in the governance of corporate IT, not as a controlling player, but as an expert in maximising service performance. Offering consultancy advice to the management team would complement existing in-house expertise. As the perceived risk will vary from time to time so will the need for specific advice.

Leadership is a key managerial trait for any successful organisation. IT, by its very nature, is at the edge of business management where the most recent innovations directly impact on every aspect of day-to-day commerce. A well designed, well run IT infrastructure can significantly contribute to the efficiency of an organisation. Equally a badly conceived one can bring it to its knees.

Technology is no longer a nice-to-have. It is an essential ingredient of effective commerce and a pre-requisite for globalisation. It therefore almost dictates that management need to be forward thinking in their approach and open-minded to the changes that are essential for survival in a modern business world.

They also need sufficient agility to endorse the whims of a flexible market, whilst being able to lead an IT support organisation through the effects of globalisation. Good leaders will know their responsibilities and will know what they have to do to discharge them effectively throughout the organisation.

Being a senior manager doesn't necessarily mean that you are a good leader. It could mean that you have been with the company a long time. The IT management team need to be able to demonstrate soft skills as well hard-nosed business ones. Being able to assess a situation that is potentially going bad and decide on an effective action plan in a timely manner is essential.

To be able to lead an effective workforce in today's commercial world requires leaders that can: inspire and not just cajole, be in tune with the mood of the workforce and not just the executive board, involve those that help to deliver the service and not dictate best practice and have an empathy with others not just to motivate them but help mentor and develop them.

Dr Stephen J Pratt CEng, FBCS, CITP