During my fledgling – and ultimately short-lived – career as a trainee consultant for Coopers & Lybrand (CICS, Cobol, DL/I analyst programmer to be accurate), the chasm between IT and the business could not have been wider. On one assignment, my colleagues and I would turn up to the client's site (the forklift truck division of Coventry Climax) just as the rest of the staff were leaving; as they were using the mainframe during the day, our reworking of their MRP II manufacturing system had to be implemented and tested when the rest of the business had shut down.
Fast forward many years, and the transformation looks immense: whereas once the most prized asset for an IT professional was technical knowledge, today it is an understanding of the business.
Just ask Yasmin Jetha, the former executive IT director at Abbey National. She recounts how a concerted effort to centralise IT at the bank helped drive down costs, but threatened to isolate IT from the wider organisation.
Her solution to the prospect of taking IT systems out of the business: locate IT staff directly in business units, with responsibility to address demands, while reporting to her.
In that position you learn to "think business and think customer," she says. "It's not all about wires and boxes. My main concern was aligning the business with IT to gain competitive advantage."
Such thinking was not initially welcomed by her team. But over time, the benefits become apparent. IT staff learned to ‘speak business', became more responsive to business needs, and were more accepted and respected.
"It's about being immersed, getting IT people to become more business oriented and then come back to the IT department and negotiate changes," says Jetha.
As this month's Information Age cover story on embedding IT staff in the business shows, the practice is not unique to Abbey. But while the benefits – for the organisation and for the individual – can be far-reaching, there are considerable cultural and skills barriers to overcome.
There is fear, uncertainty and doubt on both sides; building trust between IT and the organisation takes careful orchestration. But it may help organisations avoid the fate of the recipient of my MRP II code: the forklift truck unit was sold a couple of years after the rewrite and its parent descended into receivership.