Leadership

Practical tips for aligning IT strategy with company needs

Tips for better aligning IT with business goals

It's something we hear or read about all the time:
  • "The IT Department is out of sync with our company's needs."
  • "Our IT department is not responsive."
  • "We don't understand why we are spending so much in IT."

In many cases, those who say these things aren't exactly specific in their message or opinions. Even so, if the senior management of your company or the operational department managers are saying these things, we need to listen.

The "IT-Operational Gap"
To a certain extent, there is a natural separation between operational units of the company and the IT department. In many companies, IT is looked upon as strictly a "cost center" that provides support to the "real business components" of the company that generate revenue, collect cash, manage the human resources of the company, etc.

While every operational department manager will agree that technology is essential to its operation, they don't necessarily view the IT organization as a critical element to their success. Often, IT is actually viewed as an obstacle.

When I conduct IT assessments, I see this gap in a lot of companies. It comes out early on in the interviews. Senior management expresses a concern about their IT organization and that they think IT might be spending too much money but can't really put their finger on any real issues.

Department managers express their perception of a lack of IT responsiveness and their opinion that IT seems to be working on the wrong issues. Again, there are usually not a lot of specifics provided unless I pull it from them.

On the other hand, the IT organization tells a different story. In their words, they are focused, working harder than any group in the company, not appreciated, and underpaid.

These initial interviews tell me quickly that an "IT-Operational Gap" exists in the company. The sad thing is that each group will express these issues to an outside party but they aren't telling one another.

Tip #1: Communicate openly with operational groups and clients
You can't fix something if you don't know two things:
  • A gap (problem) exists
  • Specifics of the problem

It's quite all right for different departments to disagree or misunderstand one another; in fact, it's normal. Operational groups see themselves as focused on the true core competency of the company and many of the corporate support organizations view their role to be critical to operational success. Both are completely accurate in this perspective, but the IT Department is just as critical for company success as any department in the company.

Plus, IT is one of the few organizations that can help every organization in the company be more productive and successful.

Gaps are created when IT starts "taking care of business" in a vacuum. There are many IT initiatives that must take place to create a stable and supportable technology environment that are of no real interest outside of IT. However, it's important for you to keep your company aware of what you're doing. Otherwise, the natural inclination is that you aren't doing very much.

Network upgrades, system installations, etc., take time and often have large expenses associated with them. For the most part, these projects are not something an operational manager or company executive can actually see and touch so they may not understand the real benefit in doing such projects. In other words, it's just one of those expensive projects the IT department is always asking funding for.

Communication is a skill that will help you reduce or eliminate the "IT-Operational Gap".

Tip #2: Find out what's needed
As a consultant walking into a new company, I have an advantage. I can ask anyone virtually any question to learn what I need to know to understand what they are trying to do about their objectives, problems, and issues. No one is put into a defensive posture because I represent someone trying to develop an "objective" evaluation of the company's IT situation.

You, representing IT, need to do the same. Go ask your internal clients what their needs are and whether your IT organization is focused on these issues.

Tip #3: Validate your plans
Have you ever thought you knew an answer to something but when you asked questions about it discovered that your answer was "off center" or completely wrong?

We all have the ability to size up a situation and come up with a technology strategy to address that situation. But, the solutions you and I develop for an issue can be very different. Both solutions may work to solve the issue, but one of these solutions may be totally inappropriate for the company at the time.

The only way to know this is to develop a specific IT plan, or strategy, that addresses the key technology issues you have identified in the company. The plan needs to identify the issues you are addressing, the IT initiatives you plan to execute and their priority, the benefits expected to achieve, resources required, and the cost of your plan.

Once completed, presenting the plan to your senior management team and asking for their validation in at least a couple of areas is key. Ask yourself:
  1. Have we addressed the company's critical needs?
  2. Do our IT initiatives appear to be prioritized appropriately?
  3. Do they agree with our plan and will they support it fully?

If company priorities change, be sure you verify any IT initiatives plan changes with those who approved your original plan. Otherwise, you may find yourself being expected to deliver both sets of priorities.

It's simply a matter of ensuring everyone stays on the same page for what you are working on. It's a simple concept but one that's overlooked by too many.

Tip #4: Conduct periodic surveys
The "IT-Operational Gap" is always lurking in the background in your company. It's something we all need to be constantly aware of to keep it minimized.

One of the ways to keep the gap minimized is to follow the tips above and to add one more. Periodically, you need to go back to the operational managers and senior managers of your company and ask them how your IT organization is working for them.

This doesn't have to be a formal program. Simply walk down the hall and meet with people, take them to lunch, or ask them at the water cooler how your organization is doing relative to supporting their operation.

Are there things you need to do differently, is your group responsive to their needs, are there initiatives coming up that you need to know about to support their efforts? All of these questions can be asked quickly and the answers can give you insight that lets you know if your operation is focused on their needs.

But remember, if you want an open and honest reply, you have to be open to their answers. Bad news is good news in disguise. It gives you information that will help you and your organization do a better job.

I make it a point to conduct a formal survey of all key managers in the company at least annually, and informally I constantly ask questions to verify that we are on the right track in meeting my IT organization's client needs.

You can minimize or even eliminate the "IT-Operational Gap", but it takes proactive effort and lots of consistent, open communication with all the key managers of your company.

Mike Sisco is the President of MDE Enterprises , an IT management training and consulting company. For more of Mike's management insight, take a look at his IT Manager Development Series at www.mde.net/cio.

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