Computer experts rule the world but not its companies

Chief executives are selected from general management and finance, but rarely from IT. Why is this?

I was asked by a friend to make the opening address at a conference of information technology executives yesterday. I could see at once that I was in danger of breaking the first rule of speech-making: make sure you know more than your audience. The only thing to do, I concluded, was to build my session around questions that I could put to my audience for debate.

I was asked by a friend to make the opening address at a conference of information technology executives yesterday. I could see at once that I was in danger of breaking the first rule of speech-making: make sure you know more than your audience. The only thing to do, I concluded, was to build my session around questions that I could put to my audience for debate.

I first asked whether applying information technology could facilitate the introduction of non-traditional management structures. In other words, could IT produce something different from traditional systems where everybody reports upwards to the rank above until, at the highest level, the chief executive is reached.

I had in mind some different ways of doing business that have appealed to me over the years. One is now a historical curiosity, though I encountered it back in 1960 when I joined, as my first job, the venerable firm of NM Rothschild & Sons in the City. For the merchant bank was still run as a partnership. There was no position of chief executive. The partners transacted business as a group, in the same room, and the intimacy that came from sitting together substantially improved the effectiveness and cohesion of their decisions.

I am also impressed by research carried out in the United States into the way women manage businesses in contrast to men. It suggests that the structures favoured by women resemble a series of concentric circles, with the boss in the middle. In this system the leader reaches out to whoever is useful for the work in hand, whether senior or junior.

Finally, I had in mind my experience in newspapers 15 years ago when Fleet Street finally embraced IT. The new operating systems were used in this newspaper, for instance, to get away from the old, deep-seated blame culture by devolving responsibility from the centre out to individual sections. But since then, I have not encountered any further examples of information technology changing management structures.

Then I took a different tack and recalled that when I first became a financial journalist (after Rothschilds), few companies had finance directors. A chief accountant did all the work. However, a crisis in the late 1960s, when companies lost control of their finances, changed all that. Then it took a nightmare period of industrial unrest to bring a second profession in from the cold – personnel, or human relations (HR) as it is now called. More recently, as the financial and business press has grown more powerful, public relations has grown in importance. Likewise, the IT function has similarly broken through, guardian as it is of a revolution in the way companies operate.

But from which discipline are chief executives selected? From general management of course, also from marketing and finance, but rarely, so far as I can tell, from HR, from PR or from IT. Is there a good reason for this? This was my second question to the IT professionals: are you forever condemned to be the assistants but never the chiefs?

If this is so, is it because you speak a different language from the rest of us? Because you are poor communicators? I mentioned two IT failures and one success familiar to me. The first concerned a medium-sized company that introduced a new computer system to handle all its processing work. The project took forever. It went way above cost. And when it was at last completed, after some years, it was found that lots of the promised functions were missing.

The second is a famous public service that has become overwhelmed by paperwork and is struggling to make sense of it. When I met some of the hard-working, dedicated supervisors, I asked whether they would welcome new technology. Their reaction was negative. They had long suffered from a badly functioning computer system and they felt sure that a replacement would be just as disappointing.

The good example is a new public body that, provided with a reasonable budget, was able to introduce a new case-working system for its tasks. This time the work was completed without visible hitches, in months, on budget and to the delight of everybody.

Why were these outcomes so different? In the first case, a computer illiterate management was told what it needed so the system was imposed rather than specified by the internal users. In the second, a poorly functioning system corroded trust. In the third example, a genuinely iterative process was present between users and the internal and external suppliers of the new kit. In short, the difference between success and failure was accounted for by the quality of communication within the organisation concerned.

My third question, therefore, was whether IT professionals have seen their responsibilities in too narrow a fashion and whether they have failed to understand that everybody needs to establish legitimacy. By legitimacy I mean that nowadays you always have to sell yourself and what you do, and at the same time open channels so that those whose activities you can affect by your actions have a means of communicating directly with you. I proposed a motto for IT executives: explain, always explain.

aws@globalnet.co.uk

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Guru Careers: Software Engineer / Software Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software Engineer / Softw...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before