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Maximizing Business Results Through Effective IT Leadership

j0439356Lately, I’ve been getting lots of good ideas for blog entries from my participation in various LinkedIn group discussions.   One recent topic was about what IT should focus on in any organization.   Another was about whether we should be working harder or smarter.

The title I have selected for this post also happens to be one of my current value proposition statements.  It’s not just an empty platitude, but rather, it provides some clarity to my endeavors, and outlines what I believe IT should be all about.

 
The Purpose of the IT Department

The *purpose* of the Information Technology department in any organization is to facilitate the business objectives of that organization through the use of people, process and tools in a secure and deterministic fashion. 

Please don't get me wrong. I do not consider IT as a group that is just there to provide support functions.  This is most commonly indicated by statements such as the following:

“IT need to remember that it is here to *serve* the business”. 

I see that mindset as debilitating.  It paints a picture that is neither accurate nor useful.   This whole IT vs. the Business is a silly, time-wasting dichotomy.

When I say that IT is supposed to facilitate business objectives, I mean that it is a key component in how the business moves forward, and whether it can do so successfully.  Not only does IT have great potential to add value, but it can be a business differentiator (not just by being there, as almost everyone uses technology these days).  Ultimately, IT is the engine that makes the business run.

If IT is only playing an order-taking role in an organization, then the business is not going to achieve its best possible performance, and it’s probably wasting a whole lot of money as well.  IT must be seen as a part of the business – and a necessary part at that – rather than a necessary evil.

Technology (and thus technology management) is not just critical to most businesses today, but it constitutes a significant part of their budgets.  Additionally, it touches clients, partners and suppliers.   In order to reap the maximum effect of the investment, technology needs to be managed carefully.  So does the technology team.

If IT is not seen as an intrinsic part of the business, if the technology team is not brought on board with new initiatives early enough in the process of establishing direction and goals at the corporate level, if the knowledge and expertise of the IT leaders are not brought to bear on problems *before* key decisions are made, then IT will always seem out of step with the business, and technology solutions will never fully address the needs of the business.

 
What IT Should Be Focused On

Once an organization has established its corporate goals – goals which include how technology will be used by that organization – it is then possible for IT to establish what it will be focusing on.   In other words, the Information Technology team can only effectively do its job as it understands what the business is trying to accomplish, and as it has had some input into how the business might want to go about achieving its goals. 

This cannot be an independent discussion by the business and by IT. 
(This cannot be emphasized enough!)

With the corporate goals firmly established, here are some broad categories of issues that IT needs to focus on:

  • Business Enablement & Process Improvement
  • Services Delivery
  • Capacity Planning
  • Information Security & Risk Management
  • Disaster Recovery & Business Continuity
  • Technology Roadmap Development
  • Business Innovation

The specifics of each category depend on the inherent nature of each business and its industry, as well as the goals that the corporation has set for its business.

The business can only effectively tell IT what to focus on if it sets clear business goals, and allows IT to be part of that discussion at some level (before it is carved in stone).   IT can only successfully drive the business, if IT is respected for its understanding of the business, and if it has been involved in the formation of the business goals.

Any IT organization which tries to drive the business, when the business sees IT as a mere order-taker, is heading for a disaster.   Likewise, if IT sits back in a reactive mode, and simply serves the business whatever the business wants in the name of flexibility (or because it is deemed a cost center), then both IT and the business will fail, because it is not fair to ask people who do not understand the ramifications of complex technical decisions to make them without being given guidance.

IT must work with the other business units in a collaborative way, making sure to provide guidance and options, and being willing to serve the needs of the whole ahead of its own needs, on most occasions.   The business on a whole must understand and appreciate the value of IT to their organization, and recognize that IT possesses skills and information that are essential to the organization being able to attain its goals and complete its mission in a cost-effective fashion.

By engaging in an US vs. THEM mindset with regards to IT and other business units, the organization will squander its investments in people and technology, and find itself behind the curve with customers and competitors.   It takes strong leadership – all across the business, including IT – to navigate these potentially treacherous waters and come out victorious.  

 
Working Smarter, Not Harder

Not only is it important that the entire organization be working together, but it is vital that they work together intelligently. 

Yes, working hard, it important.  In fact, it is vital.

Working harder, however, should be minimized, as it is counterproductive.  It can be done in emergencies, and for a limited time, but it is not a sustainable strategy.  Over time, it leads to more breakdowns in execution and more, costly mistakes.

The goal, then, is to work hard, but smart.  Working smarter is achieved by...

...properly evaluating what needs to be accomplished before just jumping in with both feet.

...effectively communicating with all parties (staff, colleagues, clients, partners and management) about the goals, objectives and progress of the work already underway.

...delegating some level of decision making to workers, so that creativity can be employed within the bounds of reason.

...setting aside some time for formal staff training, and creating a culture that continuously evaluates projects to learn what worked, what didn’t, and how to create or improve business processes.

...recognizing that it always costs less (in both soft and hard dollars) to do a thing right the first time, vs doing it the fastest way possible - repeatedly.

...properly aligning incentives with accomplishments.

An engine that is operating optimally, is neither idling nor spending a great deal of time in the dangerous red zone.  Not only does such an engine generate significant value, but it will last a long time as well.

By working together, and doing so intelligently, the organization can maximize its business results, obtain competitive advantage over its competitors, and achieve true innovation.  

It takes strong IT leadership and good communication throughout the enterprise to not only manage the technology challenges of an organization, but to help the business understand and take advantage of the capabilities of IT.

United we stand, divided we fall.

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Posted: Monday, September 21, 2009 12:11 AM by Logik!

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About Logik!

Andrew S. Baker aka ASB aka Logik!

Andrew S. Baker is a business-savvy, hands-on IT leader with expertise in mentoring people, mitigating risk, and integrating technology to drive innovation and maximize business results. He creates competitive advantage for organizations through effective IT leadership: implementation of processes and controls, and architecture of robust business solutions.

Mr. Baker has successfully led a number of high-performance technology teams in designing, deploying and maintaining secure, cost-effective computing environments for well-known companies, including Warner Music Group, The Princeton Review, Bear Stearns, About.com, and Lewco Securities.

For over a decade, Andrew has exhibited thought leadership on technology and business topics via mailing lists, technical forums, blogs, and professional networking groups, along with contributions to podcasts, webinars, and over 20 technical/business magazine articles. He also serves on several boards and committees for non-profit organizations, and within the Seventh-day Adventist church.

His personal interests include Astronomy, Basketball, Bible Study, Chess, Comics, Computers, Family Life Ministries, Reading, Strategy/Role Playing games, and Professional Networking...

A summary of Andrew's current résumé is available here, and he can be reached on a variety of social and professional networks, including LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter.