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Boards, not IT, should govern technology

Bonnie Gardiner | Aug. 12, 2015
Company boards must maintain responsibility for governing large IT projects rather than give up control to the IT department, according to IT industry veteran, Russell Yardley.

"Boards need to have two or three people that can lead the learning process, because it is a learning process, but it isn't one of abrogation. It's not about saying 'the experts will deal with the technology and we'll do everything else'.

"You need to use the experts on the board to build a dialogue so that people get the vocabulary they need, the case studies and the anecdotes, and all the different perspectives, and then you can bring together a much more honest experience."

Yardley recalled his time on the board of the Victorian Government's failed VicRoads' Registration and Licensing (RandL) project. He was invited to join the board as a technology expert after five years in operation, which had cost the state $112 million and began with "a grand vision" that Yardley claimed was long gone by the time he joined.

"That experience was incredible, I kept asking 'why didn't they stop this project three years ago?' but it's really hard to see that when they are so invested in a project.

"When I've been on boards, and I've been there because of my 40 years in the tech industry, I can ask certain questions, and then others will say, 'I've wanted to ask that question for three years but I thought I'd look too stupid'.

"That's what happened when I got on RandL board, I started asking all these questions and everyone else admitted to have been worried sick about those things too... in the end they all knew it had to be terminated, and that's so often the case with technology."

Grilling the experts

The experience on the RandL board reinforced Yardley's belief about the culture in boardrooms, and the difference it makes when an expert is brought in and "grilled by the amateurs".

"Every answer to each question would generate ten more questions," he said.

"You get the amateurs and the experts to interact, and with the expert having to articulate what they think is important the layperson will learn and then ask better question of the expert.

"After doing this for a while the laypersons will say, 'you experts always want to do this, but we've thought about it and we think instead we're going to do this' -- and they will be right."

Yardley recommended that to better understand technology, board members should seek to investigate and engage with technology on a regular basis, while also investigating technology in the same way they would investigate finance.

"There's a 30-year difference between the two approaches... but if a board was asking questions very similarly to the way they'd investigate finance and audit as they do with technology, they'd feel more comfortable," said Yardley.


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