More than a third of senior businesspeople don’t think their internal IT organisation is capable of executing the digital agenda, according to Harvard Business Review research. This unflattering opinion of IT colleagues’ capability corresponds with a new reality of digital business: Any organisation that wishes to accomplish ongoing transformation must put IT at the centre. The IT skills gap isn’t going away — it just got more critical.

Happily, the convergence of cloud services with a raft of new technologies, including artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain and data analytics, means that IT is becoming pervasive and embedded. Businesses and employees are unlikely to falter and fail in their work because of the malfunction of a discrete IT department. More IT decisions and capabilities are being automated, alongside a new fashion for business-led IT.

The words of Damian Bunyan, chief information officer at energy company Uniper, express the zeitgeist of the digital era. “I refuse to recognize a demarcation between what people call IT and the business. If electricity didn’t work, society would break down. And if IT doesn’t work, Uniper breaks down.” The company is putting IT at the centre by building a digital foundation of digitisation, automation and mobility.

Trends surfaced by the 2019 KPMG/Harvey Nash CIO survey suggest that Uniper is not alone and that many other organisations and CIOs are grasping the new reality. “The data shows that the most successful organisations are those making the biggest investment in business-led and managed IT,” explains Rob Grimsey, group marketing director at Harvey Nash.

There’s a caveat, though, warns Grimsey. Of these digital buccaneers, “the ones that do not consult IT in decision-making expose themselves to greater risks and a loss of trust”. In essence, there’s a continued and urgent need for IT professionals and skills, with data analytics, cyber security, AI, enterprise architecture and business analysis topping the shortage list.

Former chief envisioning officer at Microsoft and author, Dave Coplin, says the disruptor and game changer for IT and the wider workforce is the use and potential of AI. “In the world of work, anything that boils down to servicing a pattern can be done by robot — typically this is 30 per cent of any job.” Recent forecasts from data crunchers IDC about AI in IT operations (AIOps) support the view of an increasingly automated and intelligent IT function.

The challenge for CIOs, says Coplin, is to decide how best to use the time that is liberated by AI and automation. While IT and business leaders are mulling this over, big enterprises are also looking to partnerships to help fill IT innovation and skills gaps, as the CIO survey showed. “Instead of outsourcing, partnership is a more effective model for accessing innovation and skills in a new era of co-opetition [cooperative competition],” confirms Grimsey.

Large corporations are experimenting with other models to plug skills gaps and ramp up innovation, such as partnering with agile start-ups. The partnership between Mastercard and Revolut demonstrates how the agility and energy of a small business complements the governance and scale of an incumbent. Revolut is one of the early success stories to emerge from Mastercard’s Start Path accelerator programme in 2016.

While IT chiefs and departments continue to plan and modernise their digital foundations for a central and pervasive role, the skills shortage will remain. Unlike the days when a recruitment spree or outsourcing deal could solve a shortage — even if it was for the short term — today we have to think partnership and AI to build the future.