The business of IT

In a year when the IT industry matured, and indeed dominated the headlines, it is not surprising that the role of the IT director and the skills needed for that position have come under scrutiny.

Where once the role needed only a technician capable of comprehending obscure programming languages and responding to esoteric demands at a fixed pace, it now demands a business strategist capable of understanding what technology can achieve for the business and telling the business what to do about it.

It is the change from passenger to bus driver which has shaken the IT director role out of the back office and into the front line.

IT has evolved into a real business tool. The next obvious step is for IT to become the business driver. But how many law firms have really got to grips with the need for the head of IT to be part of the strategic decision making body?

An increasingly wide range of firms are offering services via the internet and the really successful firms have a business qualified practitioner driving their IT systems forward. The initials MBA lurk on the business card of many heads of IT because as a group, IT professionals have realised that they need to understand the underlying business structure. It is no longer normal to see the discounted cash flow calculations coming out from the finance director's office – they are now being delivered as a part of the business case by the IT director.

Demonstration of successful technology is often a pre-qualification for business tenders. Increasingly advanced technological ability offers an opportunity to distinguish the candidate and secure the business position. The strategic IT director does that for their firm and keeps the attention firmly focused on the needs of the client – more than just the inward facing requirements.

Senior headhunters now acknowledge that the search for a business-oriented IT director is now as difficult – if not more difficult – than searching out a good lawyer in certain disciplines.

The best skill IT directors can bring to their role is their knowledge of what IT can do to make the practice of law and the delivery of advice easier, more efficient and, critically, different. No longer is it a question of fixing the PC when it will not quite do what is necessary, or reminding a senior colleague to plug the thing in first – it is about looking at the range of services being offered and asking "can we do this differently?" or "can we make more profit on this by changing the model?".

IT directors will take over the driving seat because they will be asking those questions and driving the lawyers to look inward towards the process.

The market is available to IT directors at the moment, despite a little bad press about the self-induced non-event crisis at the end of last year, and everyone in professional service firms now acknowledges that IT can make a difference. But it is down to IT directors to speak the language of the boardroom.

As Rene Carayol, IT director at IPC, says: "We've got to be linguists, we've got to speak their language, we've got to wear their clothes." At present, IT directors have to fit into lawyers' models, but the pace of change is so fast that they are likely to have the board fitting into their model soon.

It may be a changed role, it may take a little grappling with, but for professionals who have been working in the fastest changing industry ever, this should be no challenge at all.

Janet Day MBA is the IT director at Berwin Leighton.