Here is a typical issue that IT professionals, managers, and even executives experience: They often feel they are not listened to by their business counterparts and decision makers.
A typical scenario goes like this: A meeting is called to discuss acquisition of a new mission critical application. The business side of the organization favors a solution that seems to offer the widest range of functionality. The IT representative (this could be a CIO or an application developer or anyone in between) is aware of serious limitations of the underlying technology and lets the business know of his concerns. Kindly thanked for his contribution, he finds out later that the decision was made against his advice.
Some time later, the organization finds that the technical limitations they were warned about are a great hindrance. It may be that integration with other systems is painfully difficult or the application data cannot be accessed easily or the application fails sporadically or any one of a million other things that could go wrong. The business feels hamstrung by the inefficient technology, while IT support costs skyrocket and IT staff is unable to work on anything else. The business wants a replacement, IT is blamed for being unable to support business needs and the cycle starts again.
Does this sound familiar?
Because this problem is so pervasive, a significant part of my consulting work is devoted to enabling IT management and professionals to communicate with the business effectively. In my experience, among the reasons for the voice of IT to be ignored, there are three that transpire in most if not all cases:
- Lack of business knowledge
- Using the wrong language
- Lack of assertiveness
Let me explain what's behind these points.
Imagine that having developed the sniffles, you decide to see a doctor. At the clinic, a physician greets you and without saying a word, proceeds to writes a prescription. What? Without asking about your symptoms and looking at your health history? Without checking some key "metrics," such as whether your lungs are clear and the heartbeat is normal? Absurd!
Yet time after time I come across projects that are proposed (and, often, initiated and executed) by IT departments without much consideration for the current economic climate, the state of their organization's industry, and the needs and priorities of the company. I believe that this is the key reason why in so many organizations the CIO plays a second fiddle to the rest of the C-level ensemble.
If this is how things play out in your organization, know that this condition is curable. Whether you're a network administrator, a project manager, or a CIO, for your words to be taken seriously, you need to be able to converse on business topics, demonstrate your knowledge and appreciation of current business challenges, and be able to introduce ideas that are relevant, exciting, and profitable. By doing so, you will establish your credibility and people will start listening to what you say (and may even hang on every word, if you are seriously good).
You have every right to be concerned over the lack of transactional integrity in the vendor's application or the fact that the vendor suggests rebuilding all indices a couple of times a month. Let me assure you that these words usually mean nothing to your business counterparts. Voice your concerns using these terms and people's eyes will glaze over. They will nod politely and may even appear mildly concerned, rarely asking for clarification for the fear of appearing incompetent. The problem, however, is this language fails to relay your message with the sense of importance and urgency it deserves.
The key to making your words impactful is translating them from IT argot into business language. The best way to explain what I mean is by the way of an example. How should you relay your concerns about the lack of transactional integrity? I think something like this should work:
"The application design does not prevent complete transactions. Our customers may receive goods for which they have not paid. We may fail to ship equipment that has been paid for, jeopardizing our service levels and opening the door to contract penalties. And we will never know for sure how much inventory we have on hand."
Now, all of a sudden, your message can be understood because such nightmare is easy to visualize from a business point of view and most shareholders will want to avoid it at all costs.
Here are some more before and after examples, just to re-enforce the point.
Before: "This call center application is buggy."
After: "While on the phone with customers, agents will experience delays in processing orders and at times will be unable to complete a sale. Our revenues will go down, our cost of sales will skyrocket, and our image will suffer. We will lose sales and customers."
Before: "The application will not scale."
After: "It's an adequate solution if we believe that the volume of business will remain the same or decrease. If we hope to develop this line of business, we must look for an alternative"
Before: "This DRP solution does not provide sufficient client data redundancy."
After: "There is a distinct possibility that we will lose all of our sales data without a chance of recovery. We won't know what we sold and to whom and what is owed to us and how much we owe to our suppliers. If you think that year-end is stressful today, it will be a picnic compared to what it may become if this scenario comes true."
Before: "Customer address is manually entered into a free-text field, which is not a good way to do it."
After: "You won't be able to base your marketing decisions on objective information about clients and their location. I'm sure we want to spend scarce advertisement dollars in the areas where sufficient ROI is assured."
Before: "For this advertised functionality to become useful to us, we need to do a lot of development."
After: "We need to budget another $300K if we want to use this feature."
Before: "We won't be able to use QoS on this network segment."
After: "We won't be able to utilize this connection effectively and accommodate the evolving needs of the business."
Get the idea? Give it a try today and see how much difference this approach makes.
Today, most people know a little bit about computers and have ideas on what IT people actually do all day long. In the corporate setting, few business executives would admit that IT is something that they just might not understand to the degree necessary for decisions involving technology considerations.
In my observation, IT professionals and management seem to forget at times who the IT authority within the organization is. If it is inconceivable for a CIO to tell the marketing head how to run advertisement campaigns, why is it a widespread occurrence that IT departments have become order takers, being told what solution to implement and which vendor to select? What an unfortunate position to be in—not a trusted advisor and valuable asset but merely an implementer, an expense item on the income statement.
IT leaders and their staff must act assertively, if their words are to have any weight, and establish themselves as the authority in all decision-making involving IT. They must work to address business problems and opportunities, looking at the business content and applying innovative solutions. They must educate their business counterparts on the new developments in the IT and explore their application together.
Do not allow solutions to be foisted on you. It attenuates your department's value and status within the organization and, above all, leads to misguided projects and missed business opportunities.
The three key factors discussed today can be effectively addressed in most settings, generating positive energy, revitalizing IT departments and delivering great value to the organization and its shareholders. Start changing today - and let me know how it goes.
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Ilya Bogorad is the Principal of Bizvortex Consulting Group Inc, a management consulting company located in Toronto, Canada. Ilya specializes in building better IT organizations and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (905) 278 4753
Ilya Bogorad is the Principal of Bizvortex Consulting Group Inc, a management consulting company located in Toronto, Canada. Ilya specializes in building better IT organizations.