Leadership

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.

About

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...

13 comments
OldHenry
OldHenry

Sometimes the business doesn't realize what they are asking. I had a person my team supported who kept asking for some outrageous things. He didn't know they were outrageous he just knew he wanted them. I sat him down once and five minutes into one of his tasks he smacked his forehead and apologized. I told him there was no need and it was out job but sometimes what seems simple and what should be simple are not. He started coming to my staff meetings and whenever he needed to roll out a new technology someone from my team was on the project team and we all played much nicer in the sandbox after that.

JamesLeeP
JamesLeeP

As an IT manager for a multi-facility grocery retailer, I participate at the strategy level. I share the strategic goal and discuss them with my team before taking them to my management peers. As a management team, we also share our ideas for special projects as they relate to the needs of the business, and I provide my input from the IT perspective (as well as an overall business perspective). I do not agree with the binary choice between either letting IT drive the business, or letting the business drive IT. IT should be one (essential) component of the overall business strategy, which is a much more nuanced and healthy approach.

fergalk
fergalk

Same old problem - doesnt make it any less of a problem. I think the business side sees the IT system as a piece of standard kit - like a phone and it should do what the business expects - quite right - except that when you want to upgrade your kit to provide more functionality you research, think/ communicate and then purchase. The same can't always be said about IT provision - everyone knows how it works ergo everyone knows that it can do everything thats required so no consultation /2 way relationships are required - just do it, today within your budget. Our business is auomated - no IT, no business and was built from the keyboard upwards but still the belief is that the dept is bottom of the list for success contribution and fund allocation. What a radical thing it would be if the business could spend time with the task orientated folk but whenever we invite them they are always too busy with meetings to discuss the future - never remembering that in our industry its IT that is the future

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

We've been hearing this for years, the number of people in IT not familiar with the issues, are limited to total newbies and recalcitrant members of management. Saying the same thing again in a different way won't work any better than it has any time over the last decade. Maybe, just may be, it's not all down to IT being naturally resistant. Maybe there's some other things going on. Maybe they are on the so called business side of the job. GIven how often this message has failed abysmally, may be its time for a new one.

MyopicOne
MyopicOne

Concerns about #2 resulting in yet more promises being made that cannot be delivered.

Fairbs
Fairbs

I agree that the best results would be from IT partnering with the business. The business units should lead by suggesting promising projects or objectives. IT can then show the realm of possible solutions and together with the business decide on the best path forward. The concept of IT driving the business is frightening to me and has to be incredibly unhealthy except for projects which are primarily IT related such as adding capacity or rolling out a new version of a software package.

TooOldToRemember
TooOldToRemember

and desire to belong. Problem is, some (most?) times the IT group is delivering what the business wants them to deliver. If not, they replace the leadership of the group and start again. Unfortunately for many of the pundits out there, in many cases, IT really does not drive the business and never can. I do love the Caterpillar example though - I believe that has been a best practice for as long as I have been in the business. Great to see it come up as something IT management should start doing. Sorry; usually not so critical or negative, but it seems many of the articles lately have been so basic it is an embarassment to think current IT management needs to read them.

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

are where other areas haven't got this message and totally disregard anything IT has to say except 'Sir, Yes, Sir will do Sir' despite it being against the system capabilities, the regulations, or the good of the business. I know of C level staff who abused IT because they wouldn't put a wireless point in his office so it made it easier for him to put his desk where he wants and ti just sue the wireless to access the system with his notebook - never mind the system required wired connections for all devices attached because it was a requirement of the Dept Defence security classification of the material on it. The IT techs wouldn't do what he wanted, so THEY had to be at fault. If they had done what he wanted the company would have lost a multi year mega millions defence contract as soon as DoD conducted their next quarterly audit of the system.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Late 90s up to the dotcom becoming dotwot, it was a nightmare. Wheels came off big style and we got the blame for that as well. The boys spouting this stuff then and now conveniently forget a key point. They are the ones in charge, if your IT is doing something else other than facilitating doing business, you are letting them. Why? Weak? Incompetent? Some one explain why it's happening, that's if it is at all of course. We are a well useful scapegoat...

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

For decades. So the reason nothing has changed, must be because we are stoopid. We aren't the ones in the green house throwing bricks, we are the ones getting stoned by people who can't throw.

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

Not sure how they make any money at all other than selling shares on the Stock Market to fools who believe the Marketing Spiel. OH OH OH I know they have a billion users so they must be worth lots of money so I'll have to run out and buy into them. Unfortunately way too many [i][u]Gamblers[/i][/u] [b]Stock Market Drongo's[/b] actually believe the BS and get their customers fingers burnt. Fortunately most of those with Burnt Fingers are the Banks who get to gamble with their own money and then when they loose they get the public to pay for their mistakes. Col

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

who enjoys confrontation, chances of me being made CxO some where between slim and none.

Fairbs
Fairbs

It seems like Google continues to be in the business of creating wacky ideas that really don't seem to create much value for them although I think they've gotten a lot better lately (android and gmail / google docs for biz). But when it comes down to it, they are really only making money on ads and preferred search results, right? Some other companies products that have me scratching my head are: Cisco making phones and Microsoft making MP3 players. Amazon is interesting in their evolution. First they were a sales channel for books only and then a consolidator of sales channels. Then their success demanded they improve warehousing / logistics capabilities. And now, since they have so much experience with data and capacity issues, they are selling services in this area. I think I'm straying from the main discussion here. As to your questions, a convenient explanation is dysfunctional organizations and that blanket includes most of what you suggest. Another thought is that IT workers are often introverted and non confrontational which may make us have a hard time getting to the CxO level to be seen as legitimate and also makes it easy to put the scapegoat label on us.

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