From motherboard to executive board?

16 January 2017

Historically, the network manager didn’t necessarily have any formal training but could put a connector on a piece of cable and knew how to patch in the comms room, according to Networks Centre. But with rapid advances in technology, it says basic knowledge is no longer enough. PHOTO: NETWORKS CENTRE.

Historically, the network manager didn’t necessarily have any formal training but could put a connector on a piece of cable and knew how to patch in the comms room, according to Networks Centre. But with rapid advances in technology, it says basic knowledge is no longer enough. PHOTO: NETWORKS CENTRE.

In an age where digital transformation is proving essential for businesses to drive increased productivity, studies carried out earlier this year revealed that many technology leaders believe today’s IT teams are not fit for purpose. 

For instance, a survey of 1,200 IT workers and senior IT managers conducted by recruitment specialist Experis found that organisations want their teams to deliver more cloud services and mobile apps, and turn data into actionable insight. However, 67 per cent of IT leaders said they currently lack the balance of team expertise required to provide these services. 

According to Experis’ Tomorrow’s Tech Teams research report which was published in April, the IT department has been traditionally regarded as the “practical powerhouse” tasked with maintaining infrastructure. But now it is evolving to become more strategic.

“IT teams are starting to redefine business practices and put digital services at the heart of their organisation,” said Geoff Smith, the company’s Europe MD. “Yet this research suggests they aren’t in a fit state to facilitate this change. 

“IT leaders think they lack the relevant team skills, but workers believe they aren’t given the opportunity to demonstrate their talent. This should be a wake-up call for UK businesses. They need to establish the capability of their IT department. There is an expectation that IT can drive strategic growth.”

VMware takes this further with the findings of a study it released at the end of November. It revealed that business leaders believe the management of technology is shifting away from IT to other departments, as lines of business take charge of technology-led innovation in UK organisations.

According to the virtualisation specialist, this is leading to the ‘decentralisation’ of IT. It says this occurs when any employee within any department in any organisation (other than the IT department) is making IT purchases or installing or maintaining software. It can also include employees using non-IT approved software or services without the involvement of the centralised IT department.

VMware’s study of 200 IT decision makers and heads of lines of business in the UK discovered that this decentralisation of IT is delivering real benefits such as a faster ability to launch new products and services, giving companies more freedom to drive innovation and increasing responsiveness to market conditions.

The firm also found that there are positives from a skills perspective, with the shift in technology ownership beyond IT to the broader business seen to increase employee satisfaction and help attract better talent.

However, it went on to reveal that leaders from across the business believe decentralisation is causing a duplication of spend on IT services, a lack of clear ownership and responsibility for IT, and the purchasing of solutions that are not secure. 

Furthermore, the movement is happening against the wishes of IT teams, the majority of which want IT to become more centralised. In particular, the study said IT leaders feel that core functions like network security and compliance, disaster recovery/business continuity, and storage should remain in their control.

Joe Baguley, VMware’s VP and CTO, EMEA, said: “Managing this change is the great organisational challenge companies face. The rise of the cloud has democratised IT, with its ease of access and attractive costing models, so it’s no surprise that lines of business have jumped on this opportunity. Too often, however, we’re seeing this trend left unchecked and without adequate IT governance, meaning that organisations across EMEA are driving up costs, compromising security, and muddying
the waters as to who does what as they look to evolve.”

Seventy-seven per cent of respondents in the study agreed that IT should enable the lines of business to drive innovation, but must set the strategic direction and be accountable for security. Baguley said this highlights the balance that needs to be struck between the central IT function retaining control while also allowing innovation to foster in other separate areas of the business. “By recognising these changes are happening and adapting to them, IT can still be an integral part of leading this charge of change,” he said.

Ian Goodman, head of technology consulting at Surrey-based talent management services firm Gibbs S3, supports this view. He says the centrality of IT is in fact critical to all business delivery systems, especially when it comes to security: “A network manager must now know who is accessing the network and what are they doing on it, as well as ensuring that non authorised attempts to access the network are thwarted.”

Goodman says the “storming influence” of analytics is not passing over the network manager, either. “Advanced analytics skills, which give network managers the ability to predict network demand as well as report it, are in demand as the network becomes the central enabler to all business functions.”

So is all this merely a demarcation dispute with IT departments believing that their roles are being hi-jacked by others in the organisation?

In Experis’ survey, IT workers hit back with claims that their potential isn’t being realised. The majority said that their skills and knowledge were not being fully utilised by their employers due to a lack of investment and up-to-date training. In addition, more than a third of IT workers pointed out that day-to-day problem solving is prioritised over innovation projects. 

According to Smith, this shows a “disconnect” emerging between IT leaders and IT workers: “Organisations must review and restructure their IT teams to enable innovation. This starts with greater investment in the right training that is tailored to employees and business requirements, while creating a culture that supports personal development.

“It’s also important to realise the potential of existing IT teams and encourage individuals to think creatively about projects that will impact the bottom line.”

Goodman concurs here. “As recently as 10 years ago, the network manager was usually to be found locked away in a small or dark room dealing with LANs and WANs – which nobody else needed to know about. The only time anyone really took notice was when email went down or when a business-critical system was involved.

“In today’s world, when technology is such a fundamental enabler across the entire range of business services, we need a sense of immediacy and connectedness. The network manager must undergo a fundamental change in mindset: they have to understand what the business as a whole is trying to achieve because connectivity is of absolute paramount importance to this delivery across departments.”

According to Goodman, the network manager’s role is fundamentally changing from being primarily “passive” in nature to “proactive”. 

“It’s no longer about simply providing a service, but about collecting the data on how it’s being utilised. Being able to understand how demand for a particular network fits with the activity going on in different departments across the business, where peaks and troughs in demand are going to occur, is now at the heart of the role. In the next five-plus years, network managers and the entire IT department will have to go beyond this to show what value they are creating.

Getting down to business 

In August, BCS The Chartered Institute for IT, published a white paper that warned that future CIOs and their teams face a number of new challenges that will require significantly more than just keeping up to date with technology.

Jon Buttriss, CEO of BCS Learning & Development, said: “It is vital that the focus centres on customers, as well as managing business needs. Capabilities around business expertise and relationship management will become increasingly important as future IT digital leaders address their organisational objectives.”

Called The CIO of the Future, the white paper states that the alignment of technology to business and customer needs is of primary importance, but putting focus onto customers is an important shift required from CIOs who are more used to focusing directly on business needs.

It also says that while disruptive new technologies need to be embraced, effective technology management needs to provide governance to protect business and customer assets and data.

“Some technology skills need to be developed within the IT department – for example around data science and architecture,” says the paper. “But capabilities around business expertise, relationship management and emotional intelligence and influence are likely to become more important as core technology delivery becomes increasingly commoditised.”

BCS offers a number of resources to help IT pros become more business-minded. 

For example, earlier this year it announced a partnership with global exam institute EXIN on a new certification programme. According to EXIN, trends such as cloud, mobile, and ‘Big Data’, amongst others, have created significant shifts in the way businesses operate and are often key for innovations. Its certification programme (which is already offered by BCS) is claimed to provide alignment between business needs and business change solutions, leading to “sharper decision making
and improved processes”. 

Under its enhanced partnership with BCS, EXIN has expanded its governance and security portfolio with three foundation exams. They include Business Analysis, Business Change and Commercial Awareness, and are complemented by five practitioner exams.

Separately in 2014, BCS launched the first books in a new series to provide industry guidance to key IT roles in a range of business areas. At the time, the society said the idea behind the books is to put ‘the technical in the context of the business’. It said this will enable IT pros to see how their jobs fit into to the wider aims of the organisations they work for, and how the specific tasks they perform impact on their colleagues and customers. 

The first two books launched included Business Relationship Manager which aims to give practical guidance to those new to the role or interested in enhancing their understanding of what it entails. Service Desk and Incident Manager has a similar approach, but is also aimed at suppliers of service desk and associated software so they can gain a deeper understanding of how users of their products need to work. As part of the series, BCS has now also published Problem Manager and Continual Service Improvement Manager.

Other training organisations, such as Informa Telecoms Academy for example, have been running business-oriented ICT courses for several years now. The company describes its Advanced Telecoms Management programme as an integrated series of advanced business programmes designed to meet the learning development needs of “forward looking” telecoms professionals and organisations. The series includes the five-day Telecoms Mini MBA which features more focused technology modules and a greater emphasis on the business aspects of telecoms. It covers five topic areas: strategy/business environment; technology; finance; leadership; and marketing/customer focus.

Terrapinn Training also offers an MBA in Telecoms. Its programme aims to give delegates insights into the main developments in the telecoms industry and learn how to strategise. It promises to teach participants essential business skills through a “no-nonsense” appraisal of industry trends, so they will be able to make a real and lasting difference on their businesses. Over three days, students will gain an understanding of telecom networks and technology, and learn how to read financial reports, statements and financial ratios. Terrapinn claims the course is “highly practical”, involving the use of simulation tools, exercises, and a realistic and challenging case study.

Not enough technology 

But not all agree that network managers need to refine their skills by focusing more on business. In fact, they say what’s needed is for them to actually get more technical.

“I believe that in a lot of situations historically, network managers grew into their positions,” says Keith Sawyer, technical services director at Networks Centre. “The network manager was usually the guy who could always fix the crashed PC, get the website running, or any other sort of PC-based issue that may have arisen. He didn’t necessarily have any formal training, but he could put a connector on a piece of cable and understood how to patch in the comms room.

“Today, with everything becoming IP-ready, PoE in widespread use, Wi-Fi, and data speeds advancing beyond 10G, basic knowledge is not enough.”

Sawyer goes on to warn that if network managers don’t keep up with the technology side of things, the risk to the business could be disastrous. “No one wants to specify yesterday’s technology and then have to answer why it wont keep up with tomorrow’s next big thing.”

As well as technology progression, the IT manager’s changing role is being driven by a variety of factors, such as the realisation that if the network isn’t robust, it wont support all the future advances that will be forced upon it. Sawyer says: “[There’s also] more integration of departments. Traditional facilities management services – CCTV, door entry, lighting, and so on – are now being run on networks. There is much more to consider than just the data requirement.”

He continues by saying that the specific skills the network manager now needs to have is design level experience in order to fully understand what is required for today’s network. “He must understand cabling, pathways and containment, earthing, firestop, power, security, and a whole
raft of environmental considerations.”

As well as being a distributor of network infrastructure solutions, Networks Centre also runs a training academy. It is the sole European provider of BICSI’s Registered Communications Distribution Designer and also offers the organisation’s Applied Data Centre Design and Best Practice course. 

Sawyer claims the courses take into consideration every aspect of network design – and that’s vital for an organisation’s success. “Being able to work to a process and put structure around the network that encompasses all equipment that will be connected, allows for future growth and covers everything that most be considered when building a network.”

BCS may agree here. In its predictions for 2017 made at the beginning of December, it said the most successful organisations next year will be those that can develop an end-to-end digital capability that spans design and development all the way to deployment and management. According to BCS fellow and Unisys vice president Nicholas D. Evans, this will enable organisations to “continuously evolve their digital services over time with tremendous agility and at high levels of sophistication and scale”.

For Gibbs S3’s Goodman, if network managers need to become more business-focused, they primarily need to change their mindsets. However, he points out that this goes beyond just the simple need to understand the bigger business picture. Like Sawyer, he says the basic concerns of the network manager remain the same, and identifies connectivity, performance level and security as the main priorities.

And if further proof were needed about how industry hungers for more workers with technical skills, the UK requires 134,000 new tech specialists every year, with around half of these being in junior level roles. That’s according to analysis of data released last year from the Office of National Statistics and the Tech Partnership, the network of employers collaborating to create the skills for the digital economy.

The data revealed that around 1.3 million people currently work as technology specialists. It said that there are now 14 applicants for every tech apprenticeship vacancy advertised, compared with an average of nine applicants for apprenticeship vacancies in general.

Employers such as BT, Capgemini, Fujitsu, Google, IBM, amongst others, have been working together through the Tech Partnership to design course standards and online development activities as part of the Tech Industry Gold apprenticeships scheme.

Door swings both ways

So within all that, is the onus still on the IT or network manager to acquire new skills in order to adapt and understand what the ‘suits’ want? Not necessarily. Some argue that the door swings both ways. 

For instance, Bob Nott, managing director of PTT which provides specialised ICT and telecoms training online, believes it is down to all management in an IT-centric organisation to have a basic understanding of the capabilities and limitations of ICT. Network managers can then have empathetic and productive discussions with their colleagues.

“ICT has become central to the commercial activities of many businesses,” says Nott. “Any weaknesses in the ICT infrastructure or changes generally can have a direct impact on services provided to customers. Network managers have an important role to play in ensuring that those who make commercial decisions understand the ramifications of changes in infrastructure or failure in any part of the ICT system.”

As a result, Nott says network managers must be able to explain complex technical issues to those without an IT background, and understand the wider implications of ICT on business success. He says while it would be unfair to assume that IT personnel lack communication skills, formal training in presentation skills could be beneficial. “Even training normally aimed at instructors could be applicable as it teaches trainers never to assume prior knowledge when imparting information.” 

Apart from courses aimed at technicians and engineers, PTT has also developed ones that are aimed at non-technical staff. For instance, among the nine courses it offers as part of its Introduction to Telecoms programme, there are a number of sessions which the company says are particularly useful for non-technical staff who require an appreciation of telecoms services and the networks that provide those services. 

These include various introductory courses that cover: the capabilities of telephony and data services provided by modern telecoms networks and their underlying infrastructure; the basic operation, capabilities and applications of wireless communications for those joining the telecoms sector in a managerial or technical role; and the underlying physical infrastructure of a telecoms system and the commercial, standardisation and regulatory aspects of telecoms provision.

There is also a course targeting customer service agents and retail sales representatives that introduces modern telecoms services for residential customers, including telephony, broadband and mobile. PTT says the course does not assume any prior knowledge of telecoms, and students will not require a technology background to benefit from it.

The “new oxygen” for business services

What’s emerged here is the need for network managers to be able to move at the speed of business. As Goodman says, those who are used to long lead times and the option to pre-scale the network now have to respond to the demands of the digital age. “Teams working on test and learn cycles and in innovation labs have to be able to get products and services out to the outside world quickly, securely and flexibly.”

And although we are still relatively near the beginning of the journey, he says the role of the network manager is becoming increasingly critical to business success. “Flexible access to on-demand connectivity is the new oxygen for business services. And if a network manager cannot respond to the bigger picture, the entire business is in danger of choking its innovation potential.”

When BCS launched its white paper mentioned above, Buttriss said it was essential for CIO roadmaps to include the skills needed to transform their organisation to address the significant shifts in the worlds of business and technology. “For the IT leaders that don’t shy away from the challenges, the future has never been brighter for them to lead against their competitors,” he concluded.