As a system administrator, I’ve worked in organizations where IT was viewed as a cost center or even a “necessary evil.” As a technologist that mindset wasn’t mutually beneficial nor particularly buoying. All too often organizations focus attention and rewards on what they deem to be “revenue generating” departments rather than those which are integral to the business infrastructure, such as IT and finance, leaving these groups feeling like the proverbial black sheep.

You could argue that without IT companies would ultimately pay higher costs–not having email would force an organization to rely on the postal service, which would lead to higher costs and greater efficiencies, for example. Similarly, not hiring sufficient IT staff would lead to excessive outages when services or systems fail. However, this brings to mind a “protection racket” scenario in which organizations only see the contributions of IT staff when bad things happen.

SEE: How to succeed as a new IT manager (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

There’s also the problem of IT viewed as inflexible and a detriment to productivity. Stringent cybersecurity controls, frequent patching/reboot mishaps (or just plain inconvenience), lengthy wait times for help desk personnel and other pitfalls can lead to user resentment or even attempted circumvention of established technological processes. The rise of Shadow IT, where users attempt to get their jobs done using non-sanctioned systems, websites or applications confirms this problem.

IT’s image problem

What should IT professionals do? I spoke with David Politis, CEO of BetterCloud, a SaaS operations management organization, to discuss how the business mindset towards IT should evolve.

Scott Matteson: What are the biggest challenges right now with respect to how IT interoperates with businesses (and vice versa)?

David Politis: IT is one of the most critical components to business today, yet it’s still perceived as a cost center and a “bottleneck” as opposed to a driver of business. And this couldn’t be further from the truth. Every company today is in a race to make the shift to digital. Companies are embracing new technologies and generating data by the second. This is creating a host of challenges, most notably around data security. The only group fit to deal with these issues is IT.

Many organizations also overlook the fact that IT is the backbone of employee productivity. IT is responsible for rolling out new technologies that make work better and more efficient across a company. Unfortunately, many organizations hold the opposite view. IT is often looked at as a “naysayer” given the nature of their job and that’s just too simplistic.

Scott Matteson: How can IT better understand the needs and goals of the individual business to help empower employees?

David Politis: IT needs to get as close to the business as possible. This means understanding the broader business goals, the KPIs and friction points, inside and out.

The best way to achieve this is to align with key stakeholders. Share your thoughts and plans with an eye towards growing the business, not just achieving the department’s tactical goals. And, set the right expectations.

As I mentioned earlier, every company is in a race to become a technology company and everyone is feeling the pressure. What may seem like a lofty goal to you may underwhelm your stakeholders. While obvious, the solution here is simple: Over-communication.

SEE: How to keep your staff motivated and engaged (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

What needs to change

Scott Matteson: What cultural shifts need to occur for better integration of IT into business units?

David Politis: First, IT needs to get better at communicating everything — objectives, challenges, ideas, you name it. This has never been a strong suit for the average IT exec, but this must change in order to make progress.

Second, IT needs to continue to listen to employees. Understand what they need to perform their jobs and lay out a plan to fulfill their requests. Pay close attention to Shadow IT as a gauge. Offer options/alternatives to employees instead of simply saying “no.” Help them understand why application X does not meet company requirements and why application Y is a better fit. Then incorporate technologies wisely.

Lastly, IT needs to promote all of their great work. They shouldn’t just stand on the sidelines. If they’re contributing to the bottom line, they need to make sure they’re being recognized.

SEE: Vendor relationship management checklist (Tech Pro Research)

Leveraging IT for new revenue streams

Scott Matteson: How is IT being leveraged to open up new revenue streams?

David Politis: IT/business alignment is the first step. But many are taking it to the next level and founding startups/projects within their companies to drive actual revenue. For example, Sears Holdings Corp.’s IT department created a Sears subsidiary called MetaScale that sells subscription services to manage large data sets using Hadoop, as well as consultation services for managing big data.

Trek Bicycle Corp. is another great case study. Trek’s CEO John Burke one day voiced his concern over their company’s POS systems, and IT responded by licensing technology and creating their own POS, Ascend.

Others standouts include popular grocery chain Kroger that launched Sunrise Technologies, an investment arm and Ford that is making huge investments in robotics and software development.

Scott Matteson: What are the advantages to this process and the individual company?

David Politis: The main advantage to successful IT/business-alignment is a clear and successful path to digital transformation. IT is responsible for everything from securing your most sensitive data assets to empowering your employees with technology to drive bottom-line results. In short, IT is the backbone to business — and it’s only a matter of time until every company truly understands that.