How to help your IT staff "learn the business"

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To deliver topnotch service to the company, your IT staff has to know how the business works and what users need to do their jobs. Here are a few strategies to help IT'ers become more business savvy.

The adoption of cloud-based applications has empowered business users to contract for IT services directly with a cloud provider and to bypass IT entirely. This bypass doesn't always happen, but when it does, business users often experience a new type of IT relationship with a provider--one where the provider makes formal service and responsiveness commitments to them. In the case of SaaS (software-as-a-service) cloud providers, business users may have access to experts in their lines of business who can help them with non-IT issues that have been plaguing them for months or even years.

As users have become accustomed to these levels of service, their expectations for IT understanding and responsiveness to the end business have also grown. The net effect is that CIOs should have strategies in place that focus on educating their technically oriented staff members with knowledge of the end business as well as equipping them with new technical skills.

But how do you do that when you're primarily running a department that is engineering-oriented, where staff members prefer to bury their head in code rather than get out into areas of the business?

SEE: Hostile workplace prevention policy

Put it on the agenda

One way you can help your IT'ers build their knowledge of the end business is to devote time during IT staff meetings to the business itself. You can use this time to go over end business goals (which may or may not directly relate to IT), revisit recent company announcements, and go over quarterly reports of earnings and expenses. By doing this, you illustrate by example that understanding what the business is all about is a mandate, and that you expect your staff to be cognizant of business goals and how they're tied to IT's daily work. The more that IT staffers at all levels understand the fundamentals of the business, the better they will be able to empathize with end users and produce great applications that meet business needs spot on.

Let IT staff work in a business area

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A second approach is to create opportunities for IT application developers to work directly with business areas or to spend some time in them to gain familiarity with the business. This can be a touchy area for CIOs, because it can mean losing the services of a business analyst or an app developer for four to six weeks if they spend that time in an area of the business. However, the investment is well worth it if the developer comes back with an "on the ground" understanding of what the business actually does--and with relationships with end users that have been solidified from working alongside them.

Have IT develop relationships with super users

A third approach is to organize a program where key IT contributors (especially developers) get to know the "super users" in end business areas. By forging strong relationships with super users, IT staff can build a better understanding of the business while gaining super user counterparts who understand enough IT to assist in application and system requirements definition.

SEE: IT leader's guide to making DevOps work

Make business education a goal

A fourth approach is to send your IT staff to seminars or self-education programs that help them learn more about the end business and what makes it tick. As part of this commitment to extra training, goals should be factored into performance reviews that require IT'ers to develop business savvy.

Send staff to areas of greatest need

A fifth approach is to take a hard look at application backlogs and at the areas that have required the most help and enhancements. The CIO can gauge which areas of the business are experiencing the highest number of IT pain points and direct IT staff to learn more about those business areas.

Encourage IT staff to interact with users

And finally, a sixth approach is to implement a service culture in IT. IT'ers have a natural tendency to be introverted and more comfortable cutting code than in getting out in front of users. By stressing to staff the importance of developing strong verbal, written, and interpersonal skill--and recognizing and rewarding for these attributes in salary actions--you can go a long way toward building business savvy in IT.

How important is this?

A CIO I know at a large agribusiness company reported that IT spent months developing an analytics application that analyzed and formulated feed rations for chickens and cows. The algorithms processing the ration recipes were the best in the business at prescribing feed recipes for optimal yield at least cost. This was a testimony to IT's engineering and programming acumen--but the system when delivered was so ergonomically unfriendly for users that within six months, 24 field offices had opted to buy a commercially available ration formulation system just like the one their competitors were using. The company lost all the competitive advantages of the system IT had developed, IT had to write off a wasted project, and the CIO had his own explaining to do to with senior management.

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