Four tips for Breakthrough IT executives

For the past several years I have been advocating the concept of the "Breakthrough IT" organization, one where technology is a strategic investment that helps accomplish corporate goals and is approached with the same rigor, zeal, and expected results as any other organizational investment. I detailed the plan to establish Breakthrough IT in my first book, Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology.

Most organizations, especially in a knowledge-centric function like IT, are largely irrelevant without the right people, and this is especially true in the Breakthrough IT organization. The following four tips are from my newest book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion, which provides advice to IT practitioners on everything from time and meeting management to developing the strategic capabilities of your IT organization. Unfortunately I have found professional development opportunities lacking for those at all levels of IT, and while no book or article can substitute for a caring manager empowered structurally and financially to make his or her staff better, perhaps you will find a few nuggets of wisdom that can help you move to the next level.

Time and meeting management -- Pick up the &%$@ phone!

In many cases we have become overly reliant on e-mail, especially in IT. While e-mail is a marvelous communication medium, there are times when it is inappropriate or creates more problems than it solves. We have all seen e-mail catfights, where two parties become increasingly nasty toward each other as they discuss a problem or position, and each side CCs several additional people with each barrage. Why normally sane people engage in this type of behavior eludes me, but the solution to most of these problems is simply picking up the phone and clarifying an issue in the course of five minutes, rather than fifteen e-mails that make each party look increasingly petty or foolish.

Similarly, if you need to discuss something private or something where an e-mail might be misunderstood or misinterpreted, the old standby of the telephone is often the perfect solution. When a subordinate complains that "I e-mailed him on this two weeks ago!" a gentle reminder that a phone call is a far more appropriate solution than continuing e-mails and complaints can work wonders.

Staff and organizational development -- Hire people, not certifications

IT certifications present a compelling sales pitch: Rather than do the hard work of interviewing, assessing, and vetting candidates, look for our certification and be assured you are hiring the right person. Unfortunately, that sweet sound you hear is a siren's song that will soon have you washed up on the rocks of a poorly qualified or ineffective hire.

Hiring people is difficult work, and doing it right is the most difficult approach of all. While it's far easier to tell HR to "just send me 20 resumes with certificate X," in the long run you will either end up with 20 of the wrong resumes or, worse, end up hiring the wrong person. Rather than relying on certifications, take the time to explain to HR what aspect of a resume or CV indicates the right type of candidate for the role. Is it a particular company or industry? Is it a certain combination of management experience? Have the hiring manager talk to a couple people in your organization that you deem highly effective, to cull the criteria that will find more people like them. Lastly, hire people that demonstrate an ability to learn and adapt. While someone with the latest certification may be able to contribute on the day they are hired, should their certification become obsolete without an ability to learn, they too will effectively become obsolete.

While it may take longer, not only will hiring talent bring in a more valued contributor, but that person will likely stay with your organization and be more adaptable than the person with the latest certification.

Improving your IT shop -- "insource" commodity functions

There are likely several areas of responsibility that most IT managers have that are operational in nature and become a concern primarily when something goes wrong. These might range from helpdesk activities, to network operations. While there is usually a line manager in charge of these functions, he or she may rely heavily on you for input or, perhaps require your clearance for relatively trivial decisions. For these types of functions, consider "insourcing. " Insourcing is creating an independent internal entity that acts as a "company within the company," managing its budget and planning its operations independently within a defined set of parameters. Just as with outsourcing, where you establish service-level metrics and allow your vendor to operate largely independently within the contract you have negotiated, insourcing creates a similar relationship but uses internal employees.

Some of the key benefits are that you can create a more defined cost structure, take the task off your radar, and, perhaps most importantly, develop new leaders within IT, since they will have budgetary and operational responsibility for the area they cover. Further, insourcing can develop an entrepreneurial sense in your staff and provide many of the benefits of outsourcing while mitigating many of the negative aspects.

Strategic management -- trade in the tech terms

One of the recurring complaints of high-level IT executives is a lack of "alignment" between business and IT. Unfortunately, much of the root of this alignment problem lies with IT and its inability to relate to people outside IT on their own terms. When speaking with your counterparts outside IT, avoid the use of technical jargon and, more importantly, try to couch their problem in business terms before jumping to a technical solution. While it may be tempting to offer up the latest vendor-provided "Unified Communication Solution" when you hear that people are not talking to each other in a particular division, strive to identify business and process changes that can be accelerated through technology, not magically cured by throwing some boxes and wires at the problem.

Perhaps key to any IT practitioner's development is to keep learning, especially in areas outside technology. While today's cloud will likely be tomorrow's mainframe, time management, presentation skills, and personal development will serve you well throughout your entire career.

Should you wish to view the other 46 tips that compose The Breakthrough CIO's Companion they are available in e-book format through the link above or via Amazon's Kindle reader and Apple's iBookstore.

By Patrick Gray

Patrick Gray works for a leading global professional services firm, where he helps companies rapidly invent and launch new businesses. He is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companio...