by Paul Rubens

4 ways running IT is like directing a Hollywood movie

Nov 18, 2015
CIOIT Leadership

Tomorrow's IT projects will use rapidly assembled casts of specialists, with a digital strategy officer role emerging to take the lead as the project producer and director.

CIOs will need to run IT departments more like Hollywood film studios to achieve the best results in the future.

That’s the view of Dan McClure, an expert in innovation at Chicago-based technology consultancy ThoughtWorks.

He points out that the big Hollywood studios abandoned 50 years ago the idea of making movies using talent they had signed under exclusive contracts. Instead they began assembling casts and crews for each movie they made using the best people available from a much larger industry-wide pool.

“What I find fascinating about the movie business is that each project is a complex one and one that is unique,” says McClure.  “That’s similar to the IT space, where one project will need specialists in X, Y and Z, and the next one will need experts in A, B and C. So what we need to be doing is reconstructing IT teams for each project based on the talents that those projects need.”

There are some “noncreative” IT skills that are always going to be required to manage and run a basic IT infrastructure, but rather than operating a core IT team to carry out this function, McClure believes  enterprises will largely move these operations to the cloud in the future to be run by specialists in that field.

That implies that IT departments will be smaller, and what you’ll find in them are changing groups of staff with specialist skills. These people will have been brought together to form teams to work on specific creative and innovative IT projects.

[Related: 4 ways CIOs can speak better CFO]

The key point is that the people working in an IT department one month won’t necessarily be the same people the following month. “What enterprises will end up with is shifting teams of skilled IT people carrying out creative labor,” McClure says.

But for this type of scenario to become a reality, McClure says four key things need to happen:

1. Increased IT talent visibility

What’s needed in this world of shifting IT staff is a robust way for IT workers in different fields, and with different levels of experience, to be able to identify themselves. That’s necessary to ensure enterprises can assemble the best teams of people from the talent that’s available at any given time quickly and efficiently.

If we follow the Hollywood model, McClure says, this suggests that skilled IT staff will end up having agents (or some equivalent) that help them find projects that require their specialist skill sets to work, and ensure that they command a rate of pay commensurate with their skills and experience.

2. New pay structures

Essentially, McClure says, that alternative ways will have to be found to compensate “high-value individuals” when they are participating in projects, so that they can afford to live when they are in between projects.

This is similar to the way that well-known actors and actresses make a living, he points out. “When actors are working they are paid well, so we should expect to pay higher wages to IT staff for short periods of engagement when they are actually creating.”

(It is already the case that many IT contractors are only paid when they are actually working, but McClure says that the skills of programmers and many other contractors are typically treated as a commodity and therefore attract only relatively low rates of pay.)

3. Emergence of IT producers or directors

McClure says that every IT project will need the equivalent of a movie director or producer – someone who is an expert in getting the right team and equipment in place and having a vision of how to proceed so that the project can be carried out successfully.

4. Improved language and tools

Here McClure uses the analogy of a choreographer working with a new troupe of dancers. He says that although the choreographer may not have worked with any of the dancers before, a shared vocabulary and dance taxonomy allows everyone to understand what is required of them.

So, by the same token, an IT project producer or director and creative IT workers will need a new shared vocabulary and taxonomy in order to be able to communicate and tools that enable them to work productively together easily from the moment a project starts.

An obvious question leading on from this is who the producer or director should be? The answer, McClure believes, is a Digital Strategy Officer (DSO) whose role sits somewhere between the CIO and the CMO.

“CIOs and CMOs are often deeply rooted in their silos, whereas a DSO is holistic, disruptive and goes between silos,” he says. “Generally the CMO and the CIO are not inclined or oriented to do that, so a DSO brings new DNA to the mix.”

But he adds that CIOs that feel that they are misfits in their current jobs could be better suited to this DSO role. “If they are forward thinking enough and take holistic views of things then they could certainly make the migration to DSO successfully,” says McClure.

[Related: 7 tech giants share their core values]

What specific skills does a DSO need? The answer is quite surprising: part entrepreneurial skills, part the skills of a revival preacher, and part the skills of a choreographer, according to McClure.

A DSO needs entrepreneurial skills to spot opportunities and put together the right team to exploit it, McClure explains. “That means you need someone who understands technology, certainly, but also legal, regulatory and change management matters. You also need someone who can motivate sales people – and all this is the classic model of an entrepreneur.”

Choreographer skills comes down to the need to be able to manage and organize multiple skilled IT workers who are specialists in different domains.

And the revival preacher skills? “One thing you need to be able to do as a DSO is keep people energized and moving in the right direction,” says McClure. “With innovative projects there is a lack of business structure, so you have to persuade people to do things that are new and different – get them fired up and ready to try to collaborate in new ways.”

One final question: what sorts of innovative projects will these rapidly dissolving and reconstituting teams be working on? It’s impossible to be specific, but McClure says that successful companies will pursue projects that both give them an advantage and are difficult for competitors to copy.

And that means the IT projects of the future will be big, hard and very complex ones, he concludes.