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IT | John Tate | 1 Nov 2006

John Tate asks, do different sized organisations have common IT issues?

October was a busy month on the conference circuit and I spent five days attending sector IT events. Two in particular highlighted the diversity of charities. At the large end of sector there was the Charity Consortium IT Directors Group (CCITDG) annual conference. At the smaller end was a one day conference run by CFDG on accounting software for charities with an income of up to £2 million. I was interested to explore whether there was a common theme to running IT in very different sizes of organisation.

The CCITDG conference illustrated a really interesting change going on in their world. A number of forward thinking charities are recruiting IT directors with commercial experience who can engage with their organisation in a strategic dialogue on how IT can help shape their future. While the nuts and bolts role of running IT infrastructure is still a key part of the job, the contribution to helping form and develop strategy is what makes a world class IT director and world class IT. Getting technology to work is in its own right a full time job. This is essential for the head of IT to have credibility at board level. However, time and the necessary skills must be found to engage in the strategic dialogue.

These are two very different talents for an IT director. Chief executives and finance directors are broadening their search to find the right person for this role. Budgets need to reflect the cost of recruiting these candidates, although many working in the business world are willing to take a substantial drop in remuneration to join the right charity. They do however expect a highly professional environment to work in and will rightly challenge a board to engage in a strategic dialogue about IT.

At the CCITDG event a lot of the focus was on the culture of organisations and how to create a healthy working environment to effect change. Trust, openness, honesty and strong team working are core components of this. As the skill levels of IT directors increases the real value from IT will only come if organisations create the right culture to embrace and then implement a strategic plan. Many charities struggle to do this – with or without an effective head of IT. For the IT director his or her influencing skills need to focus on encouraging the right culture in their charity. Chief executives and finance directors would be wise to engage their IT function in this dialogue. IT cannot be ignored. Ultimately this starts at the top of a charity and chief executives and trustees ignore this at their peril.

The majority of the attendees at the CFDG event do not have a full time IT person, never mind an IT department. Some have managed to get a trustee on board with strategic skills and a number of these attended the event on behalf of their charity. There was a lively debate on which accounting software product best suits the needs of the smaller charity. However, it was not long before it became apparent that lack of money is a major stumbling block to being able to buy or afford the right solution. Charity accounts are complex and the smaller commercial systems often lack the functionality required to do the job. The more powerful systems are more expensive and difficult to use, requiring additional cost to implement and support.

One of the case studies at the CFDG event was of a charity that got into financial trouble around two years ago and was forced to make widescale changes in its organisation. Implementing a new finance system that would give a clear picture of what was happening was a key part of the turnaround. The money was found to do this and with a lot of hard work the implementation was successful. This solution only succeeded with support from the chief executive and board. The charity had to make changes or it would have gone out of business.

So perhaps there is a common theme with IT across the sector, regardless of the size of the charity. IT must be supported from the top and the environment must be right to effect change. Budgets must be found to recruit the right people and invest in the right technology. Finance and IT directors must develop their skills to influence the rest of the board to help make this happen.

John Tate is a leading IT analyst in the charity sector and chair of Citra  

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John Tate

John Tate is a qualified accountant and entrepreneur. He is a columnist for Charity Finance, a visiting lecturer at Cass Business School's Centre for Charity Effectiveness and Trustee of Eduserv. He also non executive chair of Civil Society Media.

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