Leadership

IT's chicken or egg problem

Should IT have to prove its worth to executive leadership or it is incumbent upon executives to drive IT toward corporate strategy?

If you've spent any appreciable amount of time in IT management, you've heard the bromides about IT and business "alignment" and "getting a seat at the table," the latter referring to getting IT representation in strategic discussions. At their core, these points reveal the frustration many in IT feel when their work is seen as a technical utility rather than something that could have a compelling strategic impact on the company. Sure, IT has a utility component keeping the email servers running, but look at a Google, Apple, or even Wal-Mart that has leveraged IT to create extreme competitive advantage.

The interesting aspect to these discussions is that people in IT management seem to fall into two camps in their proposed solution to the problem of IT/business alignment, resulting in a bit of a chicken or egg problem. One camp contends that IT needs to earn its place in strategic discussions, toiling away thanklessly until its contributions are recognized and the CIO receives a cordial invitation to the next board meeting. The other camp suggests that IT's strategic potential should be recognized by the CEO, and that it is incumbent upon executive leadership to embrace IT and drive it toward executing corporate strategy.

What I find interesting about these arguments is that they assume too passive a role for IT leadership. In the first case, IT is the thankless soldier, hoping to one day be recognized by the General while heading into the gunfire, and in the second case, IT is the child athlete, sitting on the bench lamenting that the coach never calls him into the game. Rather than putting your fate in the hands of your superiors, pursue these three areas to accelerate the process:

Get the utility aspect perfect, and then shut up about it

The price of admission to the boardroom table is having the utility aspect of IT running flawlessly. No one is going to consult the CIO for his or her insights on corporate strategy when they can't get their email, the printers are out of paper, and the network goes down twice a week. By the same token, no one wants a CIO around who crows about how wonderful it is that he or she does their job, while expanding at great lengths about the extreme complexity of it all. The electric company doesn't call you to talk about how hard it is to literally split atoms, do they?

Talk the same language

If you want a seat at the table, you need to talk in the same language as the other parties currently there. Look at areas where IT has solved some business problem, which usually results in revenue gains or impressive cost cuts. Talk about the financial returns or cost savings with your peers rather than the impressive technology that was implemented, or the novel tools used. Focus on projects that let something happen cheaper or faster. Perhaps a new marketing automation initiative launched what was normally a six-month campaign in two months, or your logistics package has shipping times 30% faster. Avoid goofy, vendor-advocated gimmicks like awkward ROI calculations and TCO gymnastics, and focus on a business result.

State your case

With the utility aspect of IT delivering excellent service, and several IT projects under your belt with a compelling business result, there's no harm in pitching IT's strategic expertise. Spend some time analyzing problems and opportunities that your company is facing, and gather up a collection of IT's best business successes. Go to the CEO or CFO and present your capabilities, track record, and some potential areas where IT can help solve other business problems. Remember to frame this discussion in terms of business results, not technologies, and you'll be operating on the strategic level.

Neither toiling away in the background, nor demanding that IT be involved in strategic discussions merely for showing up, will provide a CIO with a long-term position at the strategy table. Getting the utility aspects of IT perfected, shifting your perspective toward the business results of IT projects, and presenting a case of how IT can help solve other business problems is a middle road with far better chance of success. Like most good advice, this is conceptually simple but may take months or years of diligent effort to apply.

About

Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent ...

67 comments
chalicemedia
chalicemedia

and can always be done cheaper "off-shore" "best-shore" or "any shore but ours". I know too many IT people who haven't got a clue about what their company actually does, how they do it, and what they need to make it successful. If they did, we would have had an affordable, workable tablet in 1995, instead of a thousand mainframe tools designed to tell the CEO how wonderfully IT is doing. IT executives who believe that IT can unilaterally drive the success of an organization are living on a different planet than the people on the board, even in a company in the IT services business.

ehdium-newsletters
ehdium-newsletters

First came the Eggs, but a crocochicken egg. On a sunny day an untold crocochicken hatched an egg with a being so different from its grand-grand-grand-grand-grand-grand-grand-grand-grand-parents that it could be called a chicken from then on. Charles sorted out this one for us centuries ago.

Charles Bundy
Charles Bundy

And that is "I will if they will." E.G. I won't talk about the utility aspect if you don't launch nukes during the power outage. I will speak in your tounge so long as you understand and speak mine. I make cases to those who listen, but casting seeds upon the rocks is non-productive. Go team...

Slayer_
Slayer_

Because of evolution, the egg came first. What laid the egg, was something chicken'ish that evolved from the ooze. But the egg is the start of each evolution.

JamesRL
JamesRL

It depends on the industry sector and the business. Some businesses just need and want the utilities - reliable and available. Other businesses use information to drive the business. They need more than just the utilities, they need tools to help them sift and sort the information to enable them to make good business decisions. Still other types of companies where IT is the business. They sometimes need to be on the bleeding edge to stay ahead of their competition and customers' needs. IT leadership has to figure out which type the company is, and also determine if the long term strategy is to shift from one type to another.

santeewelding
santeewelding

Good thing you got that word up front, Patrick. Says it all.

kimberly.scott
kimberly.scott

I have a unique position of having a seat in both IT and Corporate Finance. Prior to this arrangement I resided in Corporate Finance with a 17 year IT background. I seen the issues from both sides now and understand the high level of frustration from both groups. The business see's IT as a road block to getting what they want in many cases and IT see's the business as not knowing what they want and if they do it's probably not what they need. Since the merge of my position I feel the "Split" has been mended and both sides of the pond are working towards what's best for the company.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

While the artificial and unproductive split between business and IT exists, kiss goodbye to so called alignment. The goal should be cohesion anyway, can't have a modern business without IT, and without a business what do you need IT for... It isn't them or us not doing their bit that is causing the issue, it's the simple existence of the split, which as far as I can make out is so either 'side' can say "It was 'im" or "not me guv"

Nichomach
Nichomach

Well trolled, sir, well trolled. And have you worked out how to refill your printer yet?

beck.joycem
beck.joycem

As the detail of your article says, in so many words, the answer is that IT has to speak in language everyone else understands, and management needs to listen to them. Two-way street. This is no different to any other department of the business with a technical or professional brief outside the expertise of management. HR needs to bring new employment legislation to management's attention, and needs to do so in terms management understands. Whoever looks after the physical environment will need to explain why new water tanks will be required. The 'expertise' departments all contribute to ensure that the business maintains its infrastructure both in line with regulations and to the benefit of the company. And of course, the HR department will find it as hard to get its voice heard if it doesn't work well as the IT people. Maybe what this article makes me think is that one of the problems IT people sometimes have is that they are inclined to think they are special, somehow in a different league to the other essential experts in the business?

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

all these useless eejits doing the wrong thing you are employing. Why? We are all living on a different planet than the board, after all we are on earth... Affordable workable tablet in 95? My we did not include your goodself...

Charles Bundy
Charles Bundy

A) Who says tablets provide positive ROI across all (or any) sectors? B) What is wrong with using a mainframe if it gets the job done? C) You yowl about tablets and what not then imply IT doesn't drive business? D) Isn't everything "transferable" including your job?

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

The ooze laid something eggy which turned into the first egg-layer, which by the way was more like an egg-divider than a layer, and looked like an egg, not a chicken :p

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

after all what are the chances of eggs ending up being egg shaped. :D

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

It could have [b]Mutated[/b] not evolved. You know something chickenish exposed to massive amounts of Radioactive Materials lays an egg that a Chicken Hatches from. Something like a Turtle lays the egg gets eaten by the irradiated alligator and a chicken comes out. I can't see that though as you would need a lot of Mutated Eggs to be laid so that you can have a valuable species to arise from it. After all if there where only 2 eggs laid and both [i]Chickens[/i] that came from them where male there could be no new species could there? Or if there was a Male and Female and then the Radio Active Alligator came along and ate one before they mated there again could be no new species. ;) Col

Papa_Bill
Papa_Bill

"something chicken'ish that evolved from the ooze." By God, I think I remember him. Republican, if I'm not mistaken.

aynurhal
aynurhal

Agree. Both side has to understand. Its like a "Married" situation ^_^ From business people, IT people are slow, they are unresponsive, and they don't deliver what we want/need. From IT people, business people are demanding, they have no idea what they asked for, so stupid, even if we ask them what is they IP address, they stare blankly and "huh?" and they want us to serve them, at any moment notice, to do very simple jobs. Hey, if they don't want to learn to use their laptop, operate printer, then don't use it at all.. ^_^ You are lucky, kim, as several others, that have seen both worlds. In my company, i think the gaps is closing in. They are not entirely disappear now. ^_^ takes some time, i guess.

B.Kaatz
B.Kaatz

[Scene Initech. Bob Slydell and Bob Porter are interviewing Tom.] BOB SLYDELL: So what you do is you take the specifications from the customers and you bring them down to the software engineers? TOM: That, that's right. BOB PORTER: Well, then I gotta ask, then why can't the customers just take the specifications directly to the software people, huh? TOM: Well, uh, uh, uh, because, uh, engineers are not good at dealing with customers. BOB SLYDELL: You physically take the specs from the customer? TOM: Well, no, my, my secretary does that, or, or the fax. BOB SLYDELL: Ah. BOB PORTER: Then you must physically bring them to the software people. TOM: Well...no. Yeah, I mean, sometimes. BOB SLYDELL: Well, what would you say??? you do here? TOM: Well, look, I already told you. I deal with the g-ddam customers so the engineers don't have to!! I have people skills!! I am good at dealing with people!!! Can't you understand that?!? WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU PEOPLE?!!!!!!!

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

just like finance, sales, purchasing... The real question is why does this issue still persist, so called alignment has been the issue for decades, perhaps business doesn't really want to solve it. After all, one of our most valuable specialisations is scapegoat...

tommy
tommy

I fully agree with the thought that IT is a part of the bigger team, and shouldn't think of itself as something special in the grand scheme of things. However, there's a district difference in the way that different departments are perceived, for good reason. I would suggest that a place in board meetings for the maintenance guy is not something I would expect. The role in the company is vital without question. Without this expertise there won't be a building to hold a meeting in. Is this hypothetical individual going to have anything to say about business planning strategy? I doubt it. What I am sure of is that a knowledgeable CIO can help drive strategy development. A problem I've encountered many times before is that company culture frequently views the IT Department as being another esoteric boiler maintenance crew.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

Or... actually, that's why strippers in white feathered boots also wear little cowboy hats and buttless chaps :p

Slayer_
Slayer_

So what hatched from it, though may have been an ancestor to the chicken, it could not have been a chicken as we know them. A land creature would have had to lay the first egg.

Papa_Bill
Papa_Bill

Cancel that cheese omelet, I think I'll just have coffee...

OH Smeg
OH Smeg

The ooze laid a Egg that hatched a Stone Monkey. That's been known for a very long time and not debated so it most defiantly had to be the Egg came first though it had no relation to a chicken or any other fowl. :p Yep I've had one of those days which started out Abysmal and just got worse. When I get home tomorrow I may even be able to post the Questions of the week maybe if I remember. :D Col

Papa_Bill
Papa_Bill

I'll bet the hens appreciate it. The square ones cause a lot of trouble.

OH Smeg
OH Smeg

About the same as a Random Number Generator generating Random Numbers. ;) Quite easy when you think about it really. :^0 Col

Papa_Bill
Papa_Bill

...Millions on millions of mutated births resulted after millions and millions of years resulted in the amazing diversity of life forms we see, or don't see today. The ionizing radiation source was the sun, barely being filtered through the thin atmosphere of the time. Solar radiation mutated individual eggs and seeds, each birth slightly different in some way than there progenitors. Most life forms were unable to meet the needs for survival, some less equipped than their parents. Some fins were stronger and more agile than others. They were able to survive hard times by climbing out of the deeper predator-infested waters into shallow tidal pools. Other critters were able to make the same trip but lacked the primal intelligence of our "walking fish", and did not survive, maybe to become food for our perambulating vertebrate. And so it went, and continues this day, slowed by the increasingly protective earth atmosphere and magnetosphere.

tbmay
tbmay

...and despite the desire to make it so, IT is not a utility. When I think about utility, I think of a situation where very specific widgets solve very specific needs. The electricity workers don't have to deal with some manager or business owner being sold something "shiny" that hasn't even been tested in the current infrastructure, with them having to figure it out how to make it work. If it were only a matter of keeping the mail and file servers running, I would agree with him.

DFO_REXX
DFO_REXX

Businesses are (mostly) run by business people, not IT people who know business (there are exceptions). MBA-types understand marketing, sales, management, and even accounting, so those are important; they do not understand IT, so they cannot see how intertwined IT is with business. IT is not a cost center, nor is it (again, with clear exceptions) a profit center... but it clearly has aspects of both.

JamesRL
JamesRL

Two extremes: One company I was at had an end to end alignment process. The President did his objectives, his reports did their objectives trying to align theirs with his, all the way down the line. I spent two days with my department creating objectives which aligned with our director's objectives, then more time creating personal objectives that aligned with the departmental ones. The other extreme was a place where there was no strategic plan and not much really to align to. In fact while I was there I attended a course on aligning IT to the Strategic Plan, and their advice was, read their objectives and infer one.

beck.joycem
beck.joycem

I'm not suggesting the maintenance guy would be in a board meeting, but the director (s)he ultimately reports to would be, and would likely have to present a case for major expenditure. Whether in a board meeting or elsewhere, whether a new boiler or a new CRM system, management sees proposed expenditure that needs justifying. A new boiler might be justified because it would reduce costs, a new CRM might help generate new sales, a new shop-floor machine might enable new products to be made. To the management team they all have to go in the pot as capital projects with different expectations of return. So if the IT people with wonderful ideas present their case properly they will show their strategic importance in the likely impact of their proposals.

Slayer_
Slayer_

Animals are people we can eat. :D

Slayer_
Slayer_

I fear the day chickens reach the top of the food chain.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

fish lay eggs too, ya know. And the first reproducing cell was, in effect, an egg-laying egg.

hippiekarl
hippiekarl

spellcheck has to assume that either one is what you were really saying....

Papa_Bill
Papa_Bill

..."defiantly" and "definitely", does it?

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

You are learning at last. :D But it most defiantly solves which came first the Chicken or the Egg. As it's the egg that had nothing to do with anything Chicken the problem is solved. :^0 :D :^0 :D Col

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

Now, of course, I see that if the Monkey had not been bound, he would not also have been made free... :p

Papa_Bill
Papa_Bill

Actually, *more* packaging, but much more efficient storage. And, maybe we should think of the shell as an "ooze container"!

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Less packaging. Also cubic hens would have resulted in major efficiencies in battery farms...

hippiekarl
hippiekarl

depending on which idiotic theory needed propping up at the time. ;)

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

Wasn't the Atmosphere back then far more dense? It had a much higher Oxygen Content which allowed the Large flying critters to live and flutter about. ;) Col

hippiekarl
hippiekarl

It fails to explain how they had foliage from down in the temperate latitudes in their stomachs, doesn't it? Unless the planet 'rolled' its celestial orientation (the ground on which they grazed carried in minutes into a frozen climate, freezing the animals along with their undigested lunch from 3,000 miles down the planet's latitudes), these animals could not have travelled anywhere in that range on a meal they ate in a temperate latitude. The mammoths never thawed once since the event that killed them; the eyeballs etc were frozen intact, and the meat was fine (it saved the lives of the starving sled-dog team that first found them). Suffice it to say, the gentle, so-called precession of the equinoxes (26,000 years?! right!) could not strand herds of mammoths far, far north of their habitat---especially with daecidious-latitude foliage in their stomachs while there's nothing but permafrost for hundreds of miles around them....but that feeble suggestion was the best that apologists of the uniformitarian theory could advance to explain the mammoths' circumstance in a non-cataclysmic model. You're so right about arguments passing as interdisciplinary cooperation, Bill. edit: I might've mentioned (though we've come far afield of the original topic, IT's 'chicken/egg 'zen koan') that in fact, every square mile of this planet bears geological testimony of repeated, periodic worldwide cataclysm. It's a phenomenon of human psychology--particularly regarding those in the 'sciences'--that modern man, not toooooo many generations removed from such events, can only accept their obvious repeated occurrence by removing them (in their minds' eye) to the Mezozoic, the Paleolithic, the thank-God-I-wasn't-around-then-oic Ages. The human survivors of these events (those that DID occur during civilized, 'historic' periods) actually memorialized the events as clearly as possible in every way they could. The 'learned men of today' however (for example), see the blow-by-blow accounts of Earth being trashed as Venus and Mars partake in a tremendous 'battle' in the sky, witnessed and recounted all over the world by peoples who'd never heard of each other, as inborn 'collective myth cycles'. That doesn't do much to explain how the ancients knew that Mars has two TINY moons, whipping around it at such speed that the Martian month is less than its day (which, along with its angle of inclination to the ecliptic plane, is the same as ours; the vestige of having been at some time near us enough to have caused (along with interplanetary electrical discharges, partial exchanges of each others' atmospheres, and such phenomena as bodies of water actually being lifted) an 'orbital lock'. The two trabants of Mars, Deimos and Phobos (Terror and Rout) were noted during the seige of Troy, when Mars yoked his mighty war-steeds (Demios and Phobos) and came at Venus (Astarte/Pallas Athene) again. Johnathan Swift mentions them in Gulliver's Travels, also prior to the telescope's invention. Their telescopic 'discoverer' (the first person to actually see them since the time when they were close enough that the ancients could see them with the naked eye---while the gods threw rocks at people on Earth[!]) had the Classical education to name them--a discoverer's right--by their original names...... Makes ya go, "Hmmmm....", about the presumed, generally-accepted 'givens' that are tacit to formal science, but are completely contradicted by the planet's (and the solar system's) actual evidence, doesn't it?

Papa_Bill
Papa_Bill

"Fascinating!" Had we been around at the time, we could have recorded some wild events in Earths' history. I'm not sure I want to witness any myself, though. I've heard theories that Earth's polar precession might have caused repositioning of the global climates. This theory proposes to explain the flash-frozen mammoth with it's stomach contents. Seems to me though that there would be much more evidence of such a catastrophic event. I agree that there seems to be little cross-communication between scientists in these so closely related fields. What we hear and read seems to be the result of arguments, not professional cooperation.

OH Smeg
OH Smeg

The First egg hatched a Stone Monkey. Hence Monkey was born and it's been chaos ever since particularly after he got into the Magical Peach Trees in Heaven and ate the lot. ;) Whops wrong myth there. :^0 Col

hippiekarl
hippiekarl

Over and over? Every few million years? Still thin enough the next time? The time after that? The mutation-causing radiation must be from a 'periodic source' since new species have shown up here in a succession of waves---NOT 'gradually and steadily'. That's what vexed Charles Darwin on his trip to South America on the HMS Beagle: all biological (and geographical) upheavals happened suddenly, arbitrarily. Whatever radiation-source caused simultaneous genetic mutations worldwide caused mass extinctions as well; and NOT necessarily due to 'natural selection theory' criteria. Example: Horses were native, and well-adapted(!) to North and South America, but became suddenly extinct. Later, when a few brought by the first Spaniards ran off, they thrived to the extent of re-populating the Americas...so their first extinction here (which coincided with mass extinctions of species elsewhere) was due to 'standing in the wrong spot', not to 'inability to survive on the Great Plains'. Peoples of antiquity have observed 'new species' arriving (The Shoshone, for example, tell of 'How the cottontail rabbit got the brown mark on its back'; it happened during a worldwide cataclysm that killed almost everything. The 'mythic event' that was occurring at the time was another celestial body thrown near the Earth close enough that they---amongst other things---exchanged electrical potentials with each other. There's your full-spectrum radiation, AND the devastation of the gravity/gyroscopic effects of the event. According to the survivors (who noted the genetic mutation with their story), the Sun had found a 'new course' after the event---the subjective apperception of one standing on a planet where the cardinal points have suddenly changed. In fact, the whole world reordered itself to the new day, month, and year lengths (ancient observatories such as the Stonehenge were repeatedly altered, and ultimately abandoned as obsolete---there are 57,000 possible alignments to the points of Stonehenge and not one now points to anything 'fixed' in the sky). Seneca notes that there was a time when the Wain (the Great Bear) never got his feet wet (fell partially below the horizon), but it does now, some 3 months each year. Planet Earth got knocked around a bit, its inhabitants were flooded, lava-burned, irradiated, mutated, and a few thousand years later (since it doesn't happen in everyone's lifetime), no one seems able to accept the obvious! They now teach the 'survivor eyewitnesss accounts' as 'mythology' and 'Jungian archetypes'...... Yes, it WAS radiation and mutations; and all you have to do to become extinct is be standing in the wrong place at the wrong time (ask a frozen-intact wolly mammoth--an elephant 'superior' to those on Earth now--what happens when the field in which you're grazing is suddenly within the (brand new) Arctic Circle! You freeze, with a belly full of foliage that now grows 3,000 miles down the latitudes from where you are now....and North America, on the other side of that, begins to de-glaciate.......... Funny how biologists, geologists, and astronomers refuse to check with each other about their fields' common dillemmas; they COULD offer each other help with the contradictions in each of their fields' theories. edit: Seneca also mentions (referring to the earliest people known to pre-Christian Rome) the "Arcadians...of whom it is said, 'they dwelt in the hills and lived on acorns, before there was a Moon in the sky' ". The reference's implications to the above (not to mention to the Moon's current trashed condition!) should be apparant.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

, but them IT f'kers let us down? Huh? Substitute any department for IT in there see if that one flys. So why, it's nothing to do with them knowing our arcana, as far as I can make out it's them failing in their own.