BitDepth 527 - June 06

Phillip Marshall cautions IT professionals about the business realities of their profession...
Corporate governance in the digital world

Phillip Marshall, retired IT professional at the ITPS breakfast meeting on May 24. Photo by Mark Lyndersay.

Phillip Marshall was giving it his best shot. The occasion was the first major meeting of the Information Technology Professionals Society (ITPS) for some time. It was early in the morning, and the subject was weighty.
Corporate governance, for anyone who's missed the fates of Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling, is the aggregate of systems, internal checks and balances, and policies that guide a company's actions.

In the wake of the collapse of Enron, Tyco, and other companies that weren't guided by even the fundamentals of moral judgement, the US brought the Sarbanes-Oxley act into existence in July 2002 to bring legislative power to the discussions of how companies should be run.
Sarbanes-Oxley was needed because investor confidence was shattered by the financial posturings of large companies and employees were leaving failed companies with nothing, since many of these companies were bankrupt when their financial gerrymandering came to light.

Marshall's message to IT professionals at the meeting two weeks ago was that the work of information technology is inextricably bound into the requirements of corporate governance. Now retired, he has served as the Group Technical Director of RBTT and as Deputy Chairman of Ernst & Young.
"In the past," Marshall said, "IT was treated like a black box that's impenetrable. Those days are over."
Among the measures that he advocated are the alignment of IT strategy with business goals, control and governance mechanisms for the execution of those strategies and an increased focus on business relevant processes and competencies.

As I glanced around the room at the Ambassador Hotel, I saw well-dressed professionals paying appropriate attention to Phillip Marshall's presentation but I had to wonder how many of them would be able to return to their businesses and expect success in implementing any of this.
I also wondered how many would want to? The black box that Marshall mentioned has been one of the great safety mechanisms of corporate IT, a zone of comfort in which savvy professionals could operate without having to be bothered by the concerns of the non-technical.

Beyond the daily needs of the "users," corporate IT has tended to be free to pursue its own ideas and bringing those programmes in line, comprehensibly, with the company's planning hasn't tended to be high on the agenda of some of the IT departments I've dealt with in the past.
Marshall's plan positions information technology at the core of company operations and makes the kind of demands of accountability that business trained modern technology professionals will expect but which their predecessors might find simply irritating.

Marshall warned about the trap of investing in a profitable and successful past without buying into the future.
"There's a real need to plan IT for the future," he said, "but it must be based on the policies that the company is setting for its future, not on the legacies of the past."
To do that, IT professionals will have to begin a dialogue with their management colleagues and their board of directors to ensure that everyone understands what's required, appropriate budgets are allocated for projects and resources are mobilised to deliver on deadline.

The ITPS meeting on Corporate Governance was a window into what's required to make that happen, but it was hobbled by time. Phillip Marshall's 69 slide presentation was far too dense and involved to be delivered in the time allotted and much was glossed over or simply skipped to get the basic principles down.
It's heartening to see IT professionals getting together again to talk shop, and to begin by tackling an issue that's so central to their future success.
A follow-up session with executives as well as IT pros over the course of a day would certainly achieve more in expanding the awareness of the potential of information technology in any business that's still flirting with what it can achieve for the bottom line.
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