How to supercharge your IT department

MIT's Jeanne Ross reveals what differentiates successful tech functions from their failing cousins...

Organisations that feel their IT department is still failing to deliver but can't figure out why should take heart - university researchers in the US may well have the answer.

Researchers in the Center for Information Systems Research (CISR) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have looked at the IT departments in a variety of companies and determined they typically come in two flavours - order takers and business-change drivers.

Order takers are stuck within companies that have a one-way dialogue with their IT department - where techies are treated as drones whose role is simply to unquestioningly provide the IT services demanded by business managers.

In contrast, business-change drivers have an understanding of how the IT services they provide serve the goals of the organisation, how to maximise the benefits of technology for their bosses, and are more likely to have an input into overall business strategy.

CISR researchers found that organisations whose IT departments are business-change drivers typically enjoy bigger profit margins, spend less money on running their IT infrastructure (62 per cent of IT spend as opposed to 70 per cent among order takers) and on average deliver business benefits from IT change projects 33 per cent faster than order takers.

However, despite the evidence showing the benefits of being a business-change driver, Dr Jeanne Ross, director of CISR, said roughly half of organisations today are still running their IT departments as order takers.

Ross sat down with to discuss the difference between the two IT department models and how an organisation can make sure its tech function is a business-change driver.

sloan school of management

CISR is part of MIT's Sloan School of Management, the brown building seen across the river
(Photo credit: MIT)

What characterises failing IT departments? The order takers

"There is this idea that all the creative thinking about the business is the business people's job and it is the IT people who deliver," Ross said.

As a result, organisations have historically been focused on trying to make IT a better order taker. However, in doing so, they are trying to fix what is a broken system, Ross said.

"The most problematic outcome of this is that you get business silos, because you have so many people with individual business objectives, each placing individual orders," she said.

The fragmented nature of this IT infrastructure means it is difficult to get the company's technology working together as a coherent whole, Ross said, and so realise the greatest efficiencies.

What characterises successful IT departments? The business change drivers

Where an organisation treats the IT department as a business-change driver, IT staff are not just implementing the organisation's technology but are helping decide what tech should be implemented in order to push the business forward.

"It's about the IT department working with the business people to make sure that enterprise-wide objectives - and their impact on technology and process - are better understood, so IT becomes this strategic cog in the wheel," Ross said.

"If we are going to get more strategic in our use of technology and the design of our business processes then the IT department is the critical player in making that happen."

If the IT department is going to be able to perform this strategic role, Ross said it is necessary for the organisation to ensure the CIO and his staff understand the business side of the organisation, from corporate goals to the workings of business processes.

"As individual business people come up with ideas, it becomes the responsibility of IT people to position those ideas within the bigger picture," she said.

"In most organisations IT departments have to...