The BCS (British Computer Society) report 'Hybrid Managers - From Potential to Reality' (1990) called for the UK to develop 10,000 hybrid managers by 1995. The report highlighted the needs for further action in:
- increasing management awareness
- research into hybrid managers and their context
- management and IT education
- organization policies
This paper presents the results of a two stage research programme carried out by the author at the Oxford Institute of Information Management at Templeton College in 1989-91. In addition, it gives some personal reflections on hybrid managers based on the author's own experience as one an industrial marketing department.
What is a Hybrid?
The term hybrid was originally coined by Peter Keen in the mid 1980s, but received its most precise and most quoted definition by Michael Earl:
"A person with strong technical skills and adequate business knowledge or vice versa .... hybrids are people with technical skills able to work in user areas doing a line job, but adept at developing and implementing IT application ideas"
In addition, roles such as leaders and impresarios were also defined.However, these distinctions are seldom recognized by practicing managers.
Why do we need Hybrid Managers?
Every week the popular IT press cites another survey which highlights some of the prevailing issues in the world of IT. Examples over the last few years include:
- "Only 11% of organisations are successful with IT according to any objective measure" (A.T.Kearney)
- "30% of systems projects fail to meet user needs" (KPMG)
- "Over 40% of systems projects are not completed within time or to budget" (Butler Cox)
- "Only 27% of CEOs in the UK are satisfied that their IT department can deliver them the business advantage they need in the 1990s" (Amdahl)
Consistently among the top MIS issues in various surveys are:
- Alignment of IS to business needs
- Strategic Benefits of IT not understood by business managers
- Need to improve IS-line relationships
- Identification of competitive edge applications
All of these suggest the need for much closer partnerships between the business and IT. Hybrid managers are seen as able to play a leading role in this, with specific emphasis on:
- creating awareness of IT potential in the business
- educating IT professionals in the business
- educating the business into what is achievable and realistic with IT
To do this effectively needs the knowledge and experience of both business and IT which as possessed by a hybrid manager.
About the Hybrid Manager
Are they a new breed?
The power of publicity in the professional press is apparent in that the number of citations of the term 'hybrid manager' increased significantly during 1990 following a series of reports and articles. When research was undertaken in Nov 1989, only 1-2 people in a typical MIS audience had heard the term. Today it is more like 80%.
However are they really new? Many people, including myself (!), who would now be recognised as hybrid managers, had never thought of calling themselves that in the past - but nevertheless they existed!
When given an open-ended question which asked senior IT managers to describe themselves less than 10% said hybrid managers. As well as conventional descriptions such as 'IS director', 'business manager' there were some quite revealing ones e.g.
- "ambitious and eager"
- "a practical person who uses common sense coupled with a suspicion towards IT hype"
- "energetic and sociable"
- "a future CEO"
- "a magician"
- "a bloody miracle"!!
Origins in Research
Research by OXIIM in the 1980s showed that IS organizations go through an evolution with the following emphases:
- Delivery - focus on internal IS matters
- Reorientation - focus on the business and external factors
- Reorganisation - focus on internal linkages and relationships
It was also apparent, that as organisations evolved through these stages, the head of the IT function became more business and organisation oriented, as opposed to a technologist. Indeed, in many organisations, the people themselves were changed - technologist DP managers being replaced by line managers from the main-stream business. To be successful in these later stages calls for hybrid characteristics.
Other research looked at IT development as a process of change and innovation. With such a 'competitive edge' focus, new roles such as sponsors and champions emerge. Again research suggested that successful champions have hybrid characteristics.
As well as business and technical knowledge implied by definition, it has been found that successful hybrids also need organization specific knowledge and management competences. The latter is perhaps the most important competence needed to ensure success. Although good cognitive, analytical and decision-making capabilities are required, the key management competences needed are 'soft' inter-personal skills e.g.:
- team building
In addition, personality traits affect whether a person has the motivation to be a hybrid manager. Typical recruits to the IT profession have traditionally had very low social affiliation needs. Their career 'anchors' (after Schein) have often been technical. Yet hybrid managers must want to manage people and have a good degree of extroversion and social skill.
Characteristics often cited and searched for include:
- energy and enthusiasm
- a sense of perspective
- a great communicator
- ability to work with broad concepts or precise detail
- a driving attitude ("if change isn't taking place we must make it happen")
The acid test of whether someone is a true hybrid manager is whether they can exchange jobs with their peers in other functions. For example, I know of where the company's former senior lawyer is now the CIO, and an IT project manager who became the manager of an oil refuelling depot. Career paths and development routes for hybrids must therefore typically include periods of 2-3 years in an IS function and a line function.
An Old Idea
Examination of another specialist function - finance, reveals some interesting parallels with IT. Once almost a very specialised accounting function, during the last 20 years, financial managers have come forward to play a major role in shaping high level business policy. This is the role to which many IS managers now aspire. An interesting survey in the early 1980s showed that financial managers who had successfully made that transition had developed good business knowledge and good general management skills, in addition to their financial speciality.
General management literature also gives us good pointer to what characteristics a hybrid manager needs. They are consistent with those mentioned above - they include the ability to be a team player, a motivation to manage and a loyalty to the organization (not a traditional strong point of IT professionals!).
The R&D function also provides a useful parallel in the way they now recognise the need to 'bridge' into other functions such as manufacturing and marketing. There are interesting lessons here for IT departments. Indeed, cross functional hybridization (e.g. engineering to manufacturing) is a well known theme in other disciplines - but does not attract labels other than 'hybrid' (c.f. 'concurrent engineering').
Agendas for Change
The call for hybrid managers is a symptom of the changes that most organisations are now facing. IT is increasingly seen as a way of helping organisations gain competitive advantage. The turbulent environment is demanding that organisations create and manage appropriate changes in response. Above all, IT is seen as too important to be left to the IS department. It must be an integral part of the business and pervade its every-day thinking.
This also raises the question of whether having hybrid mangers is sufficient to ensure successful IT-business partnerships. Our research suggests not. Perhaps as important are 'hybrid teams', where people from different disciplines work together to make policy (e.g. IT steering committees) or implement change (e.g. system project teams). I would even go so far as to say that each project team should also have a social scientist as well as business analysts, users and systems developers!
Other factors which our research has revealed as important are:
- Organizational culture and climate conducive to change
- Effective organisation structures (e.g. ad-hoc teams, federal organisation of IS)
- Support and leadership in IT from top management
- Appropriate human resource focus e.g. on career planning,
- Personal and management development, career structures,
- Education and training, capability planning.
- A new look at methodologies ('Softening' the edges of some of the hard structured methods)
- Working environment (e.g.co-location, working together)
Implicit in the hybrid ideal are a number of agendas that different organisations and groups will need to work. These include:
- Management Agendas - setting the right culture, managing change, giving emphasis to human resource policies, creating effective structures and management processes for IT-line partnership, as exemplified in the above list.
- Professional Body Agenda - the BCS has for example created a hybrid manager stream within their professional development scheme.
- Education and Research - the provision of courses and other means of developing the knowledge and skills needed by hybrid managers.
This Insight is based on the work of David Skyrme and Michael Earl 1989-92. See resources below.
Although steady progress has been made over the last few years, still much remains to be done to create hybrid managers and allow organisations to gain the full benefits of their IT investments. On the positive side we have seen:
- Growing recognition of the business manager who is knowledgeable about IT and acts as a champion for it.
- Hybrid programmes in several high profile and successful organisations
- Many courses (e.g. Business Information Technology) covering a wide range of topics
- Closer integration of IT into everyday business functions
One aspect that subsequent field work research we conducted showed conclusively was the importance of bridging mechanisms. These are the various ways that individuals and teams cross-fertilise knowledge and skills either in formal or informal settings. Bridging mechanisms include IT steering groups, job rotation and secondment, multi-disciplinary project teams etc. We see more evidence of these mechanisms in use, but few organisations have systematically reviewed such approaches or measured their effectiveness.
Some of the other areas where more progress needs to be made include:
- Introducing 'soft' aspects into systems development
- Encouraging IS professionals to develop their business and general management skills
- Recognising the hybrid in organisation career structures
- In education - the lack of integration across disciplines to give students a coherent view of IT, strategy and organisation (too much is still taught a discrete subject areas)
As IT and especially Internet Commerce continues to be critical for ongoing business success, the need for hybrids is as strong as ever. Interestingly, this year has seen more use of the term. For example, Clive Couldwell writing in Information Week (UK Edition) in a feature on hybrid managers on 24th March 1999 (pp.21-23) wrote:
"Just what is a hybrid, and is it really worth becoming one? Hybrid IT managers are as rare as prize-winning orchids - yet business need them more than ever."
He cited our work on characteristics, that as well as the appropriate IT and business skills include energy and enthusiasm, a sense of perspective,communications skills, an ability to work with broad concepts or precise detail, and a driving attitude: "if change isn't taking place, we must make it happen".
"The acid test of whether someone is a true hybrid is whether they can exchange jobs with their peers in other functions"