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The Bulletin Interview

Sir Brian Jenkins

The new BCS President has plans for making IT a route to senior management - for the benefit of business and individuals. John Kavanagh reports

The idea of IT overtaking accountancy as a favoured profession might seem heresy coming from someone who worked for 35 years for accountants Coopers & Lybrand and served the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales for 25 years. But Sir Brian Jenkins, the incoming BCS President, has also always been an enthusiastic supporter of IT in business, having had computer training back in the days of machine language.

Indeed, he was a founder of the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists, formed in 1985 in the tradition of the ancient City livery companies. In business, too, Sir Brian's early introduction to computers has served him well - and benefited the accounting profession as a whole. He became partner in charge of computer audit at Coopers & Lybrand and co-authored the Institute of Chartered Accountants' standard book, An Audit Approach to Computers. He is credited as being a pioneer in bringing IT and auditing together.

But it is IT that is set to benefit now as Sir Brian starts his year as BCS President.

'The strategic importance of IT is not fully reflected in senior positions in major British businesses, ' he says. 'IT has not been a major launch pad for the top - and it is not clear that present practice will encourage much change. 'As a result, ambitious graduates and management trainees do not see IT as an attractive route, despite the strong and growing strategic significance of IT to business success.'

However, Sir Brian is applying his own experience to this issue, by pointing to useful lessons from accountancy.

'Since the war it has grown enormously, attracted very bright young people and been very successful in general management: a third of top companies are run by chartered accountants.'

The main reason for this success, he says, is that accounting techniques, especially problem solving, investment appraisal and resource allocation, have been crucial to business success and have also applied right across an organisation.

'Accountants therefore became important and gained experience throughout the business,' Sir Brian says. 'Bright people saw the work and discipline of the professional qualification, plus the wide business experience, as the best way into general management. So 50% of chartered accountants are no longer practising accountancy: they're business managers. 'The good news for IT people is that exactly the same logic applies: 'IT techniques are equally important, and we, too, cross all departmental boundaries.

'In addition, more than accountancy, we not only offer the techniques of modern business success: we also bring the opportunity of real strategic advantage.'

He adds, 'I see no reason why, over the next generation, it should not be this profession that attracts many of the best ambitious young people.

However, for this to happen demands initiatives from business, the academic world and the BCS, Sir Brian argues. And he points again to accountancy as an existing model to follow.

Even so, businesses must first decide that the strategic importance of IT demands that the senior managers of the future get a broad understanding of IT, through a grounding early in their careers - just as Sir Brian had.

'IT would be included as a major management trainee option,' he says. 'During university recruitment, suitable high level candidates would be encouraged to pursue this route. 'It would not be necessary to have a relevant degree, he says - just as in accountancy. Technical knowledge would be gained through practical experience.

Personal development would be challenging:

'Training would be monitored by both IT and general management to test the chosen people's management qualities and ability to master a technically demanding discipline while at the same time being extended at work.'

Again, as in accountancy, a qualification - namely professional Member of the BCS - would be an important element of this personal development. As word spread about the career potential of starting in IT and combining it with management training, students would themselves encourage the whole process by seeking out the right opportunities.

All this would have the important spin-off of getting universities to respond by developing degree courses that linked IT and business skills more closely - a constant request from industry. But Sir Brian's thinking does not end here. The vision he outlines would gradually get people who know both business and the potential of IT into the most influential jobs - and would also take benefits back to the IT department.

'The vision of more senior management from an IT background would lead to greater recognition of the risks from change through IT, and a better regime for managing them better. 'An increasingly essential element is insistence on properly qualified professionals working to professionally required standards. Risk related to IT will be measured against these standards.'

Which brings him to the BCS.

'The BCS fits very significantly into all this, with two important roles,' he says. 'The first is to provide the professional standards. 'This means a demanding professional qualification that demonstrates high quality, commands respect in business and attracts bright trainees. 'It also means work standards that must be followed, and which business will be confident to rely on, to add real business value through reduction of risk and the maximising of effectiveness.'

The BCS already provides these - but Sir Brian goes further. 'The BCS already has in place all the characteristics of a proper profession: a definable and useful body of knowledge, qualifications based on education and training - now with continuous professional development added - a Royal Charter requirement to act in the public interest, and a regime of investigation and discipline - to the point of exclusion - for bad behaviour or bad work.

'All this is supported by technical and ethical standards and principles that must be observed and on which others rely.'

In addition, a strength for BCS members but a weakness for IT and indeed society as a whole is that, unlike some other professions, these standards are self-imposed for members and are not part of an overall regulatory system for the whole industry, maintained by the government.

'Government normally only introduces regulation after a major loss or disaster, such as in the cases of pension law and investment advice,' Sir Brian says. 'No comparable problem has arisen from IT, but the risk is present and perhaps growing. Certainly the question of introducing regulation in high risk areas is discussed. 'A natural way forward would be a requirement for BCS professional qualifications and standards.'

He adds here that there is meanwhile much work to be done in persuading business of the opportunities and risks - and building demand for greater professionalism. A separate role for the BCS therefore is to go out and promote the whole vision - for the benefit of business, individual IT professionals and IT in general, Sir Brian concludes.

John Kavanagh is a freelance journalist and editor of The Computer Bulletin.

Pen Portrait

Sir Brian Jenkins MBCS is Chairman of Woolwich plc (formerly Woolwich Building Society) and a committee member of the AA. He has been a non-executive director of Woolwich since 1994 and chairman since 1995. He worked for Coopers & Lybrand from 1960 to 1995 and was a partner for 25 years. He has been an alderman of the City of London since 1980 and has served as Lord Mayor.
His many other roles include chairman of the Greenwich Millennium Trust and President of the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

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Copyright British Computer Society 1997