According to one job description, a product manager "develops products by identifying potential products; conducting market research; generating product requirements; determining specifications, production timetables, pricing, and time-integrated plans for product introduction; developing marketing strategies."
You typically find product managers at companies that are commercializing products for external markets. But I argue that IT departments should consider adopting a product management approach when working with internal business units.
Why? Because IT often misses the boat when it comes to meeting business requirements and satisfying internal business customers.
"IT sets KPIs (key performance indicators), but the problem is, those KPIs are usually for IT," said Bill Keyworth, vice president of research for IDC. "These are not the kind of KPIs that the end business wants to hear about."
So what does the business want to hear about?
"Business managers want to see business outcomes from IT that impact their areas favorably so they can show value," noted Keyworth.
In other words, if you're the vice president of sales, you want to see IT that can directly impact your revenue channels, gain more sales—and coincidentally contribute to your ability to further your own career.
If you're heading manufacturing and can reduce your production costs by introducing automation and robotics, and you can also increase the number of units per day that you're producing, the company gets direct value and this also helps you advance your own career.
Do end business managers necessarily care as much about mean time to repair, disaster recovery and failover, speed of transactions, and cost reductions in the data center?
Only if these items have a direct bearing on the results that these managers see in their own business units.
This is not to say that the traditional IT KPIs aren't important. They are—but mostly when the company is specifically looking at IT (and CIO) performance.
"This is exactly what the "disconnect" between IT and the end business is," said Keyworth. "IT needs to be setting KPIs in its projects that measure the value that it is delivering to its end user customers, and it needs be measuring against these KPIs from the customer's point of view."
SEE: Comparison chart: Enterprise collaboration tools (Tech Pro Research)
This is where the idea of the project manager turned product manager comes in.
The product manager looks at the market needs (i.e, what end business units want). He or she comes up with specifications for products that fulfill these needs. Then, IT builds and delivers the products.
Here are some ways IT leaders can shift their department to more of a product management role:
Understand needs from the user's point of view
If manufacturing needs a point and click, pictorialized sequence of work instructions for workers because English isn't their native language, the focus should be on designing a graphical user interface that non-English speaking users can use without much coaching—not on fine-tuning a system at the expense of an unfriendly user interface. If finance wants to reduce its monthly close process from three days to one, the focus should be an automating processes that employees in finance have to perform, not just in reducing IT processing.
Co-author system requirements documents
New system requirements documents should be co-authored by IT and business users so everyone has a hand in the game for a new system design. Early buy-in to the system development process assures that everyone remains engaged in the system build through install process. This is a great way to ensure that the original system as planned meets the business objectives it was intended to meet when it is delivered.
Establish a 3:1 ratio for end user versus IT projects
IT has its own goals to meet, such as system uptime, security and other performance metrics that it is judged on. But at the end of the day, IT is a service organization, judged by the value it provides to the end business. Therefore, the IT project schedule should be heavily weighted toward projects that are developed for end business areas, and any projects that are for IT only should be carefully assessed. There are, of course, warranted exceptions. Often, an infrastructure upgrade is needed before certain new user projects can be undertaken. In these cases, IT needs to go before the board, the CEO and end users to show why this is necessary—and to get buy-in.
SEE: Tech budgets 2018: A CXO's guide (free PDF) (ZDNet/TechRepublic special report)
Look at services you can provide that free up users' time
The idea of shadow IT, with end users going off and doing their own deals with outside vendors, sounded great at first—but now that users have all of these systems, they are realizing the headache of maintaining them. IT, in contrast, has expertise in managing outside vendors. By offering to take over contract management chores for these outside vendors, IT can provide its internal users a real service that allows users to focus on whether really want to focus on—the work of their business units.
Deliver short-term projects that meet immediate business goals
If you and your users can identify short term projects that can be up and running in three months and deliver immediate value to the business, both IT and its users will look good. An example is an online storefront analytics program that can tell sales and marketing what customers are buying and then personalize offers, or an automated inspection process where a robot visually inspects the packaging of products as they roll off an assembly line, and saves human labor. Both of these projects have the ability to deliver tangible business results in short time frames that make everyone look good.
Appoint project managers who can be product managers
Being a product manager means that you listen to the market and respond to it. The market for an internal IT analyst is the end user. Consequently, soft skills like the ability to listen, communicate, negotiate and forge meaningful business relationships and business-impact projects are all paramount.
SEE: Lack of soft skills holding IT pros back from getting hired, promoted (TechRepublic)
Publish your successes to the board and the CEO
Like any other internal business discipline, IT needs to demonstrate its worth to those who judge it. CIOs should be able to summarize meaningful project work IT has achieved—and to explain the ways that these projects directly benefited the company. IT technical details should only be presented if they are asked for.
- Why IT is the most problematic department in your company (TechRepublic)
- 5 tips for providing better staff training and development opportunities (TechRepublic)
- 5 project management trends to watch in 2018 (TechRepublic)
- Video: Transforming tech product management (ZDNet)
- Software is eating our managers, but that's okay, we have containers (ZDNet)
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 of Product Research and Software Development for Summit Information Systems, a computer software company; and Vice President of Strategic Planning and Technology at FSI International, a multinational manufacturing company in the semiconductor industry. Mary is a keynote speaker and has more than 1,000 articles, research studies, and technology publications in print.