Skip the navigation

Line Between Business and IT Blurs

The IT department will still exist, but the sharpest tech workers will move effortlessly between IT and business units.

By Mary K. Pratt
July 17, 2006 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - As more CIOs move toward business and IT alignment over the next several years, the makeup and structure of IT will change. IT and business unit employees will work more closely together -- and in some cases, interchangeably.

But today's technology leaders say this trend doesn't signal an end to the independent IT department, which still plays a critical role in companies by providing the structure, expertise and continuity needed to build and maintain a strong infrastructure.

Autumn Bayles, CIO of Tasty Baking Co.
Autumn Bayles, CIO of Tasty Baking Co.
Image Credit: Scott Nibauer
"Someone needs to collect and manage things. If you leave it up to the different business units, even if they're technology-savvy, there's no leader across the company. So the need for a clear strategy will warrant a collective umbrella we call IT today," says Autumn Bayles, CIO at Tasty Baking Co. in Philadelphia. "But we will see more of a blur between whether you work in IT or work in the business. You'll see more opportunities to cross between the lines."

Bayles is already seeing that happening. "My folks are always out in the business," she says. And conversely, Bayles says, there are tech-savvy "superusers" in the business units who work with her.

The line between IT and business is blurring even in her own position. Bayles has a mix of business responsibilities in addition to ones involving IT; she took over distribution, supply chain and manufacturing planning, and customer service a year ago.

"It's largely driven by the fact that the technology is so embedded in the processes of those operations that it's a natural [combination]," Bayles says, adding that CIOs will increasingly pick up other responsibilities in the coming years.

On the other hand, Bayles also has pure technologists within her 13-person IT department. She points to an SAP specialist on staff who is highly valuable in his role.

In the 2010 job market, Bayles and other CIOs say, such deep technical skills will still be needed to maintain "the pipes and plumbing." But they also say that as their companies move toward adopting alignment as a model, they will use outside vendors to gain those skills. Those left as internal IT staffers will need technical skills, but they'll need much more business knowledge to succeed professionally, says Saby Mitra, an associate professor of IT management at Georgia Institute of Technology's College of Management in Atlanta. "You're going to see a situation where technical knowledge is important," he says, "but it's only a small part of the picture."

For example, when Traci A. Logan interviews developers, she's interested in how well they collaborate with others and manage projects, as well as how quickly they can learn. Their IT credentials? While still critical, they are increasingly becoming secondary to business acumen and related skills.

"That [business skill set] is going to be more important than the straight technical skills they know, because you're going to see a closer marriage between the business and IT," says Logan, vice president of information technology and vice provost for academic affairs at Bentley College in Waltham, Mass.

Logan and other tech execs are aligning their IT departments' resources and projects with their organizations' overall goals and objectives -- a move that requires IT workers who know how business works. Project Management in Demand

The must-have skills for IT staffers four years from now will include excellent verbal and written communication skills and strong organizational skills, says Katherine Spencer Lee. As executive director of Robert Half Technology, a Menlo Park, Calif.-based IT staffing company, Spencer Lee is already seeing an increasing demand for project managers and business analysts -- the business-facing technology positions that are key to successfully aligning IT and the business units.

Likewise, IT executive Phil Zwieg says he sees a growing need for tech workers who can handle project coordination, project risk assessment and project budgeting. He also sees more need for workers who have expertise in a particular industry or in domains such as accounting, finance and human resources.

"I see all of those things getting emphasis as we roll into the 2010 time frame," says Zwieg, vice president of information systems at Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co. in Milwaukee and vice president for advocacy and communities of interest at the Society for Information Management (SIM), an association of senior-level IT professionals.

IT positions will require not only all of the basic technical competencies, but also negotiation and contract management skills and the ability to manage relationships with outside vendors, says Kate M. Kaiser, an associate professor of IT at Marquette University and coordinator of a recent SIM study titled "The Information Technology Workforce: Trends and Implications 2005-2008." Similarly, tech workers who have experience working with foreign companies -- specifically those in China and India, two big players in offshore services -- will be in big demand by 2010, she says.

Although IT leaders agree that tech workers will need more and more business skills in the next several years, they disagree on how that will affect the actual structure of the IT department.

Some say IT and business units will overlap, with more IT staffers shifting into business roles. Mitra says a hybrid structure will evolve: One group will be dedicated to maintaining standardization and consistency within the infrastructure, and the other will be a decentralized organization in which business analysts in business units answer to business executives, with a dotted line to the CIO.

But others say that kind of change won't occur by 2010.

"What will slow it down will be the need to manage the pieces," Bayles says. "You always need that organizational structure to be effective at getting things done. Maybe someday we'll overcome that, but I don't see it happening in the next four years."

Pratt is a Computerworld contributing writer in Waltham, Mass. Contact her at marykpratt@verizon.net.

See the complete IT Profession 2010 special report.

Read more about IT Careers in Computerworld's IT Careers Topic Center.



Our Commenting Policies