How to teach strategy to IT

IT'ers tend to be task-driven. This makes it hard for many to see the end business strategies and how their IT work fits in. Here's what CIOs can do to facilitate the process.

IT'ers tend to be task-driven. This makes it hard for many to see the end business strategies and how their IT work fits in. But it's vital for CIOs and key IT managers to incorporate business goals into daily technology work, because a better understanding of the business drivers produces better IT work. How do you do this with a naturally resistant staff?

It's not easy—because many IT staff members are focused on critical technical areas that demand most of their focus. They find it difficult to get out of these mindsets and focus on the "big picture"-especially when they are up against tight deadlines. For many of these IT staffers, meetings are perceived as unwelcome introductions to the "real" work that needs to be done. This perception will likely always be a "fact of life" for folks in the trenches-but it doesn't mean that they can't be educated about the business enough so they can understand and explain how their work delivers value to the company.

How do you facilitate this as a CIO or as an IT manager?

#1  Talk about the business in your staff meetings.

Attendance is "required" in IT staff meetings, so you have a captive audience. This is an opportunity for CIOs and key managers to discuss the needs of the business, and how IT projects support those. But CIOs and managers also need to take a page out of every entertainer's notebook: be careful not to lose the room! Be succinct in your business discussions, and avoid long-winded presentations.

#2  Get IT'ers out into the business.

This practice works with IT staff members who are business analysts or application developers, but not with more technical members of the staff, such as systems programmers, database administrators, etc. The goal is to let user-facing IT members directly experience the areas (and pain points) of the business that they support so they better understand the operations and the workflows that they are designing applications for. During this process, there is also an opportunity for IT staff to become better acquainted with end users. This fosters teamwork and ongoing collaboration.

#3  Define SLAs and incorporate business goals into salary and performance reviews.

Once of the fundamental values IT delivers to the business is keeping systems running. Accordingly, service level agreements should be established for system uptime and performance, and also for problem response and time to problem resolution. These goals are measurable with today's automated infrastructure software and can be directly incorporated into staff personal goals and salary reviews. Business-directed projects (like a new Manufacturing system) can also be incorporated into performance and salary review goals. These are ways to embed business impact into IT personal reward systems.

#4  Develop "workload" teams.

More and more, applications are being organized and monitored on IT infrastructures as integrated business "workloads" that combine different computing platforms, networks, CPU and disk. IT staff needs to be "integrated" into business workload thinking as well. For instance, if the workload is identified as an Accounting system that supports the business financial functions and there is a problem with the workload, the database administrator, the network guy, the applications people, QA and the help desk all have to work together as a "workload team" to deliver value to the business. Working in different "silos" of IT expertise isn't going to get the job done and will only delay IT staff from the end business objective-to get that system running. This is a fertile area for CIO and IT manager work-because many IT staff members are accustomed to (and prefer!) working in isolated technical silos where they only have to answer for "their" area. When this is their focus, they fail to extend their concern for the overall health of the system and the business. This is traditional IT thinking that has to change.

#5  Trace all IT goals/achievements back to the end business.

At the end of the year and in periodic updates, most CIOs hold full IT staff meetings to recap the strategic IT roadmap and what has been accomplished. In this forum, the CIO should also plan to extend discussion to the areas of the end business, and how specific IT deliverables have made contributions. This is an opportunity to reinforce "business thinking" in IT.

#6  Let the business drive IT.

There are some companies (Caterpillar comes to mind) that have gone so far as to not take on IT projects unless they are endorsed and supported by the end business first. The strategy ensures that IT work resonates with the business. It is also a way to build in immediate accountability in IT to the end business for projects and services.


Mary E. Shacklett is president of Transworld Data, a technology research and market development firm. Prior to founding the company, Mary was Senior Vice President of Marketing and Technology at TCCU, Inc., a financial services firm; Vice President o...

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