How to supercharge your IT department

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

...see this as their calling, or progress towards enterprise objectives will be slow and their use of IT will continue to be sub-optimal."

How to turn an IT department into a business-change driver

The journey to becoming a business-change driver must start with making the organisation's underlying IT infrastructure robust and reliable, Ross said, minimising the annoyances that result from setbacks like service outages and network lag.

"To become a change driver the first thing that companies do is to get their IT act together. Before the IT department can talk to the business they must be first rate at what they do," she said.

According to Ross, this can be achieved in a number of ways, from tech infrastructure revamps to staff training, but she said business-change drivers typically follow clear guidelines on how to get the best out of the IT infrastructure.

"The business-change drivers have installed best practice - that might be Itil practices but they certainly have implemented their own discipline around project methodology and around infrastructure services, and tend to invest more heavily in IT staff development," she said.

This robust approach to detail extends to contracts with IT service providers too.

"They also often have service level agreements that really drive lowering costs and improving quality," she said.

The key outcome is that the IT infrastructure is reliable enough on a day-to-day basis that business people have confidence that technology can support and transform business operations.

"You need everyone in the company to believe that IT underpins their business processes - that they can be confident that IT is going to deliver," she said.

"As you become more of a business-change driver, you are saying 'Whatever you do, don't worry about the technology, it will be there for you'."

What skills does a successful CIO need today?

"When you have got to clean up IT, you need one kind of a CIO - who's strong technically, who's a turnaround artist, who doesn't mind bruising a few feelings," Ross said. "Someone who will say: 'I'm pulling out cost, I'm doing things differently, I'm making things happen'."

The successful CIO will work closely with the management board to align IT programmes with business goals.

"They work with the senior management team to define the role of IT, to better understand enterprise process, to initiate and sometimes head up process improvement," she said.

Often the most important skill that the successful CIO should have is not technical ability but rather the ability to manage people and the vision of how to achieve corporate goals.

"That's a manager who often comes from the business side, as is the case at companies like Intel for example," Ross said.

"This is an example of companies saying 'Here is a great manager, let's put this person in charge of IT'.

"This transitions you from a focus on making IT good, to making the company operationally superior - which really requires a different skillset."

jeanne ross

Dr Jeanne Ross, director of the Centre for Information Systems Research at MIT
(Photo credit: Mark Ostow)

Why mega-projects must die

Ross feels that even the largest and lengthiest of IT change programmes should be broken into smaller parts so they can be delivered more quickly.

"I would argue that when you have a six-year ERP implementation, you can't say 'OK guys, you will see some benefits in six years'," she said.

"You have to break that down to smaller modules so the organisation will start seeing benefits straight away - you need to get something in in the next year, so the organisation can see and use it, and understand how to drive value from it."

The other benefit of this piecemeal approach to project delivery, Ross said, is that project managers can learn from setbacks and successes in early modules, and refine their approach when implementing later stages.

"The ideal is 90 days, which is not real - I don't think we can boil everything down to 90 days," she said.

"But I do think we can take the big projects and say, instead of trying to achieve all the things we want, what is the single most important thing and how do we get it in?"

Business backing is vital to an IT project's success

"If you don't get that business engagement it is over and done - stop," Ross said.

"If they are not fully committed, they won't...