Should IT have to prove its worth to executive leadership or it is incumbent upon executives to drive IT toward corporate strategy?
If you've spent any appreciable amount of time in IT management, you've heard the bromides about IT and business "alignment" and "getting a seat at the table," the latter referring to getting IT representation in strategic discussions. At their core, these points reveal the frustration many in IT feel when their work is seen as a technical utility rather than something that could have a compelling strategic impact on the company. Sure, IT has a utility component keeping the email servers running, but look at a Google, Apple, or even Wal-Mart that has leveraged IT to create extreme competitive advantage.
The interesting aspect to these discussions is that people in IT management seem to fall into two camps in their proposed solution to the problem of IT/business alignment, resulting in a bit of a chicken or egg problem. One camp contends that IT needs to earn its place in strategic discussions, toiling away thanklessly until its contributions are recognized and the CIO receives a cordial invitation to the next board meeting. The other camp suggests that IT's strategic potential should be recognized by the CEO, and that it is incumbent upon executive leadership to embrace IT and drive it toward executing corporate strategy.
What I find interesting about these arguments is that they assume too passive a role for IT leadership. In the first case, IT is the thankless soldier, hoping to one day be recognized by the General while heading into the gunfire, and in the second case, IT is the child athlete, sitting on the bench lamenting that the coach never calls him into the game. Rather than putting your fate in the hands of your superiors, pursue these three areas to accelerate the process:
Get the utility aspect perfect, and then shut up about it
The price of admission to the boardroom table is having the utility aspect of IT running flawlessly. No one is going to consult the CIO for his or her insights on corporate strategy when they can't get their email, the printers are out of paper, and the network goes down twice a week. By the same token, no one wants a CIO around who crows about how wonderful it is that he or she does their job, while expanding at great lengths about the extreme complexity of it all. The electric company doesn't call you to talk about how hard it is to literally split atoms, do they?
Talk the same language
If you want a seat at the table, you need to talk in the same language as the other parties currently there. Look at areas where IT has solved some business problem, which usually results in revenue gains or impressive cost cuts. Talk about the financial returns or cost savings with your peers rather than the impressive technology that was implemented, or the novel tools used. Focus on projects that let something happen cheaper or faster. Perhaps a new marketing automation initiative launched what was normally a six-month campaign in two months, or your logistics package has shipping times 30% faster. Avoid goofy, vendor-advocated gimmicks like awkward ROI calculations and TCO gymnastics, and focus on a business result.
State your case
With the utility aspect of IT delivering excellent service, and several IT projects under your belt with a compelling business result, there's no harm in pitching IT's strategic expertise. Spend some time analyzing problems and opportunities that your company is facing, and gather up a collection of IT's best business successes. Go to the CEO or CFO and present your capabilities, track record, and some potential areas where IT can help solve other business problems. Remember to frame this discussion in terms of business results, not technologies, and you'll be operating on the strategic level.
Neither toiling away in the background, nor demanding that IT be involved in strategic discussions merely for showing up, will provide a CIO with a long-term position at the strategy table. Getting the utility aspects of IT perfected, shifting your perspective toward the business results of IT projects, and presenting a case of how IT can help solve other business problems is a middle road with far better chance of success. Like most good advice, this is conceptually simple but may take months or years of diligent effort to apply.