CXO

Bridging the chasm: How to prevent your IT organization from becoming a commodity

There is a chasm between the IT and the rest of the business in many organizations which occurs because of the lack of credibility of the IT function in the eyes of the rest of the business. What can you do about this?

If you've been around the IT profession for a while, you've read and heard a lot about whether IT is just a service function or a great business value generator and enabler. I have always wondered why such questions are asked in the first place, because I never see anyone mulling over the role of Marketing or Finance in the same way.

I'm convinced that the scrutiny is due to the chasm between the IT and the rest of the business in many organizations which occurs because of the lack of credibility of the IT function in the eyes of the rest of the business. Here is how you can spot it:

  • The CIO is not on par with the rest of the C-level executives, in terms of the business weight, presence, or the level of rapport
  • IT staff is lovingly, yet with a tinge of irony, referred to as if they descended from a movie screen: a "guru," a "wiz," or a "propeller head"
  • It's difficult to secure funding for IT projects, but smaller requests are often granted, seemingly just to satisfy the petitioner
  • IT projects often fail, and the business benefits of those that succeed, is unclear
  • The IT organization is rarely, if at all, consulted on business strategy; in worst cases, business strategy is not discussed with IT at all
  • IT staffers admit that after making a point in front of their "business" colleagues, they often feel that their argument was not fully understood or appreciated
  • When an IT executive or manager speaks at a meeting, the eyes of all present glaze over from the amount of technical detail, and when the oration is over, most are still unsure of the subject.

Oh, so what, you may say. If there's a gap, isn't it always like that, and what's the problem, anyway?

I wouldn't be writing this if this weren't a serious problem and much less would I be running a consulting practice that helps organizations rectify this condition. In my opinion, it's in the best interest of every organization and every executive to strive to eliminate the gap altogether, and here are the reasons why:

  • In many organizations, IT departments employ easily the best educated staff, compared to other functions. This mental firepower can and should be used more effectively.
  • No organization has limitless resources, and there's only a finite amount of change that can be absorbed. So, it's vitally important that unnecessary projects are never undertaken, no matter how small.
  • When IT is aligned with the rest of the business, IT works with the full understanding of the priorities of the organization as a whole, which invariably improves the fit of IT-originated projects with the business strategy.
  • Working cohesively with other functions, IT is no longer regarded as a not-too-well understood semi-alien life form, but is treated as an equal partner and a valuable contributor.

And so I say to all IT executives, managers, and professionals out there: Your IT organization will be what you want it to be. Do nothing about the gap, and there will always be questions about your value to the organization (which can go even further than mere questions, and I'll write about this next time). Erase the gap, and your value will never be questioned again (and watch your compensation go up, too).

So, how exactly would one go about this task? Here are the first three steps I suggest, that any IT organization, or even a single professional, can start applying immediately.

1. Develop core business skills. Learn to read financial statements, master common business terminology, and understand key roles of departments and functions within the organization. How do they fit together? Learn the basics of marketing and business strategy, and some common helpful frameworks, such as "value chain" or "Porter five." This is not at all difficult, but immensely useful. 2. Know the business environment. Learn as much as you can about the industry in which your company operates. Is it a good business to be in today or not? What are the key issues? What is likely to happen in the next few years? How is your company doing and why? What is its strategy? What reputation does it have in the industry and the marketplace? Who are its customers? What are the key business priorities today and what are they likely to be tomorrow? What are the key concerns and pressures at the executive level? 3. Learn to speak the language the rest of the business understands. Very few people outside of the IT organization care about technical parameters of a new router, but many would like to know how it would benefit the business. Adopt a style of thinking that's concerned with the business impact of a solution, and express yourself using appropriate terms. Why should they care? Why now? Engage in conversations with colleagues from other departments, show interest, and pick up the terms they like to use. You'll be amazed how much you can take away from these conversations. Learn to create well-structured business cases, both verbal and written, and master the skill of cost-benefit analysis. Speak to your staff about the business environment often, educate them and strive to answer questions they may have.

How hard can this be? It's not. Follow these pointers, develop trust and credibility with the rest of the business, eliminate the chasm, and enjoy the great results and recognition.

Bottom Line for IT Leaders

It's in the best interest of every organization and every executive to strive to eliminate the gap between IT and other departments.

Ilya Bogorad is the Principal of Bizvortex Consulting Group Inc, a management consulting company located in Toronto, Canada. Ilya can be reached at ibogorad@bizvortex.com or (905) 278 4753.

About

Ilya Bogorad is the Principal of Bizvortex Consulting Group Inc, a management consulting company located in Toronto, Canada. Ilya specializes in building better IT organizations.

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