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Andrew S. Baker (ASB)

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Getting Real Benefit from your IT Department

Earlier this month, I came across a provocative article in ComputerWorld that outlined some of the reasons why many organizations get inconsistent results from their Information Technology departments.  Later, this article was made the source of discussion on a LinkedIn CIO group, where many different points of view were presented.

As is common in such discussions, the views run the gamut from “it’s all IT’s fault” to “end users have no clue”, but the views at each  extreme are less than helpful.

As I read various magazines and online forums, the prevailing wisdom appears to be that IT leadership is responsible for proving the value of IT to an organization’s senior executives, AND that they must satisfy the desires of the end-user community within that firm.   That is, the Information Technology department has a duty to both justify its existence to the senior team of an organization, and to cater to the desires of its end users, or they be outsourced and alternatives will be sought to address the organization’s technology “needs”.

Really?!?

This view, although rather popular – even among some technology leaders – is not in sync with reality for a variety of reasons.  If it really is the prevailing belief, then we need to start changing people’s minds, or we will have more ineffective IT departments.

If organizations do not want to foster an us vs them mentality between their IT departments and the rest of the business units, then they need to do the following:

  • Clearly communicate how IT must support the business objectives
  • Provide them enough resources to do so successfully
  • Take the time to understand what IT is saying
  • Stop implying that the satisfaction of individual users is a business goal

 
#1: The Corporate Strategy is Defined by Senior Leadership

First of all, it should not be the role of the IT department to set the tone for corporate strategy, no matter how sexy this sounds.  There is absolutely no dispute that Information Technology is an enabler and facilitator of corporate execution.  That it is an engine that drives the execution of strategy, there should be no doubt.  However, this is very different from strategy creation.

Even in the organizations where it can be said that IT drives the corporate goals, it is ultimately incumbent on the senior executives of the organization to determine what their company will be, what services it will provide, and how it will generate revenue.  The senior team is responsible for outlining what the overall path to execution will be, and how each department (Sales, Marketing, Talent Management, Operations, IT, Finance) will execute against that strategy.

Of course, each department or division is going to be responsible for fleshing out the details of execution within their portion of the overall strategy, and they will need to ensure that they are aligned with the big picture.  However, the big picture itself must be defined by the top executives, and this is a job that cannot effectively be delegated to any other department or group.

 
#2: The Right Talent Must be Secured

The success of any organization is dependent on having the right people in place. The right people can compensate for inadequate processes and insufficient resources, but nothing compensates for having the wrong people or an insufficient number of them.

Once an organization’s leadership has defined and communicated its strategy, it needs to ensure that it has the right people in place at all levels and across all departments.  This is just as true of IT as it is of Sales, Marketing or Finance.

Again, it is the responsibility of the organization’s highest leaders to make this happen, even if some of the work is delegated to other departments such as Human Resources.  People have to be selected who have the right fit on many levels, including competence, attitude, communication, temperament and alignment.

If you want to get the most from your IT department, therefore, be sure you have communicated your goals and have obtained people who are aligned with those goals, or the results will not be pretty.

 
#3: Understand Your Information Technology Department

There’s no point in obtaining a world-class Information Technology organization that you cannot understand, and whose work you cannot monitor.  You had better be able to evaluate what it is accomplishing and how those accomplishments align with your overall strategy.

Of course, it goes without saying that you took the time to hire a clear and effective communicator back in step #2, right? For those who haven’t realized it, almost every business department has their own special jargon.  In other words, the idea that there is only “IT jargon” plus some eloquent language that every other business unit speaks is a mistake.  Every single business unit has its own special code, which its users have to translate when talking to members outside their own departments. 

Having said that, there is much more commonality between the terms used by all non-IT departments, than there is between anyone and IT.  As a result, IT staffers need to make a very conscious effort to be clear in their communications if they wish to be effective in their jobs and be perceived as team players.

This is even more important for IT leadership.  It is incumbent on Senior IT members of an organization to make sure that they are fluent in the language of the business persons with whom they are conversing.  While it might seem unfair that the burden is mostly in this direction, it gives the IT department a significant advantage in understanding what the business is trying to accomplish.  In other words, it provides IT leaders with a special vantage point, and within the next few years, we well see more and more IT leaders be able to use this advantage to advance their careers by crossing over to the business side (for those who wish to do this).

Senior executives, however, must avail themselves of enough resources to clearly understand the information being presented to them by their IT departments.  The responsibility for understanding the benefits, costs and risks of Information Technology and Information Security must be shared by both the IT leadership and the business leadership.  It cannot only be borne only by IT leaders.  Just as the senior team must identify and adjust to sudden and drastic changes in the business landscape, so they must put themselves in a place where they are better equipped to understand the spectrum of IT issues, so that they can make good decisions.  (We’re not even going to get into the issue of listening to guidance and recommendations from IT.)

After all, how can they ensure alignment of technology to the corporate strategy if they cannot determine what is being provided by technology?  How can they evaluate risks and mitigation strategies if they don’t grasp the underlying issues?

Communication has two basic parts:

-- What is said to you
-- What you understand

Even if you were to hire someone that could make the first part worth 80% of the transaction, you still need to contribute to the other 20%.  Ultimately, much of the failure that is perceived to be IT, is really a lack of understanding of IT, and even that problem is attributed solely to the IT leadership.  The truth is that the responsibility for this problem is much broader than that.

Just like in football, where the quarterback is credited with an incompletion even in cases where the ball was thrown accurately to the correct receiver, so too, IT gets the blame for not being understood, even in cases where all the information has been presented properly.  Improvement is needed on both sides of the equation.

 
#3: IT is all about Stewardship

The Information Technology department is not just the steward of an organization’s technology, but more importantly, it is the steward of its information.  Without good information, the technology will serve absolutely no purpose.

If an organization only wants a service provider for IT, then it has many options in the marketplace today, for a wide range of price points.  That kind of IT, though, will generally fail to provide competitive advantage for an organization.  Depending on the corporate strategy, this might not represent a problem.

For many organizations, however, IT needs to be more than just a service provider. Instead, the Information Technology department needs to facilitate and advance the goals of the business, not cater to the *wants* and desires of every end user.

Being a steward of the company’s infrastructure, bandwidth and information, is not a trivial responsibility, but one which is critical to the organization’s success.  This requires thoughtfulness, planning, fiscal prudence and effective processes.  Not every employee will understand or respect the major responsibilities that are involved, but through education by IT, HR and ongoing corporate communications, the reasoning behind the rules and guidelines of every department in the organization will be made more apparent.

 
#4: Servicing The Needs of The Entire Company

The term “need” is used all too often when “want” would be more accurate. The goals of the company on a whole are almost never well-served by catering to the desires of each individual within that company.  In other words, a company is much more than the sum of its parts.

But, let us assume for a moment that every employee genuinely puts wants aside and only focuses on needs.  Even the legitimate needs of an individual employee may be at odds with the overall needs of that employee’s organization.  IT’s job is to service the needs of the whole enterprise, not necessarily every single individual.

The Legal department does not cater to the needs of every employee.
Neither does the Legal department.
Neither does the Accounting department.
Neither does the Corporate Communications department.
Neither does Office Services, Sales, nor Marketing… 

You get the point.  So, why have we bought into this ridiculous concept that the primary purpose of IT is to make the employees happy or satisfied?

Not even the Human Resources department caters to individual needs outside of what is defined by law – and only barely, at that.

What IT needs to do, is to work within the framework of the overall business strategy.  This will please some users much more than others.

(Those whose individual needs are more closely aligned to the business will find themselves more satisfied than those whose needs are less closely aligned.)

As indicated in the previous section, IT is a steward of the technology resources of the organization, and no good steward gives every individual whatever they want, as that is rarely the definition of good stewardship.  It is certainly not manageable.

Yes, IT is called upon to make the most possible with the resources granted to it, but that can never translate to "give the users what they want, or they will go elsewhere". If they have funds to go elsewhere for other technology services, then those funds should have been available to IT to manage appropriately. If the funding cannot be made available, then it is clear that the business priorities do not really support those items.

Please note that this is not license for IT to ignore the legitimate needs of the various business units, as each member of the organization attempts to maximize revenue opportunities.  Nor is it appropriate to take a hard line against being creative in the quest to solve business problems that may have arisen in between the budget cycle.  No, it is simply an observation that the role of IT is not akin to that of a genie in a bottle.  This notion is not helpful, and must be dispelled both by those within IT and those in the senior ranks of the organization.

Real benefit from IT is derived when the entire organization – starting at the top – takes responsibility for the type of IT it will have by communicating a clear business strategy, ensuring that the right staff is in place to support the organization, taking the time to understand IT, and tracking IT’s execution against the corporate strategy on a regular basis.

When addressed holistically, any organization can have an effective Information Technology department that facilitates or drives business execution.

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Posted: Wednesday, December 16, 2009 12:03 PM by Logik!

Comments

BrainWave Technology Tidbits said:

Earlier this month, I came across a provocative article in ComputerWorld that outlined some of the reasons

# December 16, 2009 12:40 PM

Fred Stuck said:

Andrew,

Excellent article as always. I wish I could add something but you've said it all.

I hope some day we find a company that follows your plan. I fell it would be an interesting place to work.

-Fred

http://XeeSM.com/FredStuck

# December 16, 2009 8:43 PM
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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.