What’s keeping tech directors awake at night?

Across retail, manufacturing, professional services and everything in between, technology has transformed business in the last two decades. Online services, automation, analytics and a host of disruptive technologies are totally altering what we mean by business as usual. 

To take just one metric, online sales in the UK accounted for 2.7% of total retail spending at the start of 2007, according the ONS. A decade later, by the start of this year, it was 16.1%. In September, average weekly spending online was £1.2 billion.   

The change has been profound and rapid. Over the course of not just a career, but even in their current roles, many IT directors have seen their companies move from filing cabinets to the cloud, and from the rolodex to robots.

Regardless of sector, technology is now central to businesses’ operations. We recently conducted research and asked technology directors about their organisation’s attitude to technology; half (51%) said it’s considered vital to the businesses, and one in five (19%) said that it’s considered a necessity. Fewer than one in ten say it’s something that can be outsourced (7%), ignored as an annoyance (2%) or something for the geeks (1%).   

From managing Microsoft Office and setting up email and antivirus to taking responsibility for businesses’ key operations, technology directors have seen their roles transformed.   But the research shows it’s not been an entirely easy adjustment.   

Piling on the pressure 

Most of those surveyed (80%) are the key decision makers in their business for technology. The remainder (20%) strongly influence these decisions.

Nevertheless, the research finds that unmanageable workloads are keeping these directors up at night. One in five say they have too much to do (20%), worry about unresolved issues (20%), and suffer from a poor work-life balance (21%). A similar proportion (17%) say they struggle with unrealistic deadlines.

Those workloads are the result of a wide range of pressures – and they’re likely to get worse. Data and compliance is already among the biggest challenges noted by technology directors (39%) and this will only increase as implementation of the General Data Protection Regulation approaches next May. Workloads will also continue to rise as skills shortages are further exposed: an International Information System Security Certification Consortium study earlier this year predicted a shortfall of 350,000 cyber workers across Europe by 2022. 

Aside from compliance, competition is an equal concern (39%), as existing players and technology start-ups attempt to win market share with disruptive technologies. And while 23% say their organisations are investing in technology to stay ahead of the competition, budgets remain a constraint – and a key concern for more than a third (35%) of technology leaders.   

Whether they are investing or not, however, technology directors are already feeling the impact of changes in their sectors as consumer preferences change. Close to one in three say managing external expectations (29%) or consumer demand (27%) are among their biggest challenges.    

Again, that’s likely to only increase as the customer base evolves. Already, millennials are the UK’s biggest consumer group. Reaching adulthood from early this century onwards, the expectations of this generation have been shaped by the technology giants such as Apple and Amazon. Many have little memory of a world in which digital technology was not ubiquitous.   

Internally, meanwhile, these “digital natives” make up about a third of the UK workforce. By 2020, they’re expected to account for half all employees worldwide according to some estimates. 

Not keeping pace 

The workload on technology directors has significant consequences for their businesses.   

First, at a time when skills shortages are both widespread and increasing, it is likely to make retention of key talent more difficult. More than a quarter (26%) of technology directors say if they were starting their career today, they would choose a different path.   

Second, and perhaps even more seriously, it is likely to mean that the increasing expectations of customers and other stakeholders are not met. 

For a start, the towering in-trays facing tech directors means it’s impossible to complete all the tasks required in a timely manner. Projects to improve the customer experience or increase efficiency or performance will be pushed back or even abandoned.    

More fundamentally, the daily slog and fire-fighting that occupies technology leaders mean there’s little time left for them to really get to grips with the latest technology. Projects that could help the business retain or increase its competitiveness are never even conceived because – as technology directors admit – they don’t fully understand what’s possible.   

Asked about their grasp of technology, fewer than one in three (29%) technology directors say they know exactly what’s going on. The majority (59%) say they know enough to get by (with 6% admitting to “blagging it”), but about two thirds (65%) say a better understanding of digital technology would help them in their role. And, to reiterate, these are the people making decisions about the organisation’s technology.   

A double-edged sword 

In some respects, the difficulty in keeping abreast of technological developments is understandable – and perhaps even unavoidable – given how fast technology is moving. Asked what could prove most disruptive to their businesses, directors name a wide range of technologies, from social media and virtual reality to autonomous vehicles.   

Tracking developments in any one of these would be time consuming, and many businesses face disruption across multiple fronts.   

A failure to give technology directors space to explore new technologies has another consequence, however; it prevents them realising opportunities to harness these developments to enhance their own role.    

Artificial intelligence is perhaps the best example. On the one hand, AI (named by 29% of those surveyed) is the technology most widely recognised to have the potential to disrupt their industry to a similar scale as Uber has disrupted transport. On the other, the same proportion of directors expect technologies related to AI, such as machine learning and robotics, to have the most significant impact on their role in the next five years – second only to changing demands form clients and business leaders (32%). 

And, indeed, these technologies will transform work. Far from being feared, though, they should be welcomed. Digitising and automating more routine and labour-intensive aspects of technology directors’ work can help relieve the pressure on them and further benefit the business. This will not only free up directors and give them a better work-life balance, but will also give them space to develop their knowledge of the key technologies that could improve the customer experience and business performance. 

By contrast, the failure to embrace such technologies risks establishing a vicious circle, leaving technology directors weighed down with mundane work that prevents them exploring technologies that could help relieve this boredom and also help the business. As ever, the lesson is that the march of technology cannot be stopped; businesses must just choose whether to march with it, or allow their IT functions, and ultimately themselves, to be trampled underfoot.  

Jim Bowes, CEO of digital agency Manifesto 

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