IT leaders: Why we do what we do

For an IT leader, there are three key reasons for developing excellent understanding of the core business. Here are those reasons.

There is a reality TV show called Undercover Boss, where a senior executive of a large company takes a position at the bottom of the corporate pyramid. The executive discovers daily operations at the level of detail unknown in the executive suites. Epiphanies abound.

While the show is highly staged and predictable, and its entertainment value is questionable, few viewers are surprised that senior management knows so little about their core business. How do they run the company? Shouldn't executive decisions be based on the knowledge of operations?

The distance between the executive suites and the front lines is often of galactic proportions. Because customers are found at the front lines (if you want to order a meatball sandwich or open a savings account, you don't call head office), being light years away from the front line translates into being light years away from the customer.

The way I see it, the demand for management consulting services is not likely to go away anytime soon.

But never mind the executive management, the very same problem is common to many departments within your company. Did Marketing try that meatball sub before jumping into commissioning the jingle and booking the TV slots? Does Finance know how frustrating it is to work with us because our bills cannot be paid electronically?

And what about IT? This article is, after all, for IT leaders.

Of all departments, IT is perhaps the most susceptible to removing itself far away from the daily business operations. There are always islands of wonderful exceptions, but they are rarely where this knowledge is needed the most -- among the IT management, where strategic and tactical decisions are made. Why do we do what we do? Does it matter?

I believe it does. For an IT leader, there are three key reasons for developing excellent understanding of the core business.

1. Improve quality of your decisions

The propensity of the human mind to generalize and simplify has been amply described in the business literature. It turns out that the best decision makers acknowledge that most decisions are complex and resist elimination of factors that appear unimportant.

If you do not know how your organization's core business operates, who works on the front lines, who the customers are, and where they are coming from, to name just a handful of important attributes, you are missing whole layers of decision-making complexity.

These considerations are absolutely critical to all kinds of decisions, from project portfolio management (timing, scope, staffing, priority, etc.) to development and selection of methodologies.

2. Create better experiences for internal and external customers

When was the last time you tried to order a piece of equipment following the procedure you have had in place for years? Have you ever tried to call your help desk? What about using your project-intake process? How did it go?

If you don't know your internal and external customers and the realities of their day-to-day decisions, you won't be able to create products and services they need.

You may be able to create a product that is state-of-the-art and an aspiration to the whole industry. You may be able to create a promotion campaign that would be regarded by marketing professionals around the world as a masterpiece to be studied in business schools. However, if your customers don't need or want it, you have just wasted a whole lot of precious resources.

3. Foster the sense of engagement in your staff

If you merely tell your staff to do something, you will get compliance, at best. It's usually short-lived. If you manage to create a sense of engagement, an intrinsic connection to an objective or process, you will get a strong and durable commitment. It is the commitment that makes people want to invest themselves in a task or a project fully, to do their best, to excel.

Connect them with the business so that they see the impact of their work. Let them rediscover the meaning of what they do. You will see sparkle in your people's eyes.

Just let me tell you Jason's story.

On a recent project in a large health-care organization, we were looking to understand the dynamics of patient discharge so that it could be optimized. The better a hospital can manage discharges, the better utilization of limited resources it can realize, so this is very important.

Working with me was an MBA student, Jason. In his mid-twenties, Jason was well-educated, polite, and suitably cocky for his age. He was pursuing studies in health-care management but did not appear very sure of the career path after the university.

If you are familiar with process analysis and design, you know that it may be tempting to start drawing diagrams and analyze statistics. Analyzing a discharge process makes a beautiful study in swim lane diagrams and value maps in the hands of a process engineer, but I didn't want Jason to lose perspective.

So, I sent him to the hospital floor to observe the discharge process firsthand.

He came back three hours later, pensive and humbled. Quietly, he told me that he had witnessed two families being advised that their loved ones were discharged because they had cancer. They would be treated elsewhere. In the eyes of patients and family members he saw the disbelief and the tears, the unanswered questions, and the sense of dire uncertainty.

What could have been an exercise in impersonal diagrams and timing has become filled with deep meaning for Jason. He worked on the project with dogged determination, guided by the sense of compassion and his internal commitment to delivering his best work.

I can also tell you that Jason is no longer unsure of what he is going to do once he finishes his studies.