There has always been an interesting dynamic between IT and most other organizations. Spend a day or two in the average IT shop, and you'll hear of a seemingly distant and often nefarious entity referred to in hushed tones as "The Business." When discussing a new system, you might hear about how "The Business" has made an unreasonable request, or "The Business" is recommending a new technology without having consulted IT. As an outsider, you'd be forgiven for picturing a giant or mythical beast, but the speaker is actually referring to his or her colleagues from outside IT. Here are three tips for working with The Business.
Be the business
While it's easy to take an "us versus them" stance when you're in a support function like IT, it's imperative that as leaders and IT managers we remember that we're part of the business. IT simply cannot exist without functions like sales, marketing, and finance, and in an increasingly technology-driven environment oftentimes these entities could not function without IT support.
In the best-run IT shops, IT is an active player in strategic and tactical business decisions and leverages technology to accomplish business objectives, rather than standing by and waiting to be summoned to deliver an IT project of some sort. This role will become increasingly important as commodity infrastructure and services shift to the cloud, and traditional corporate IT risks extinction unless it can function as a core part of the business rather than a separate shared service.
Talk the talk
A major stumbling block in tearing down the wall between IT and the rest of the organization is terminology. IT easily speaks in highly technical terms, and often pursues technical metrics like uptime and service levels that are not directly correlated to the financially-focused metrics of other entities.
Similarly, business units have their own lingo and terminology, and many a meeting between IT and another business unit has resulted in frustration on all sides, with each party feeling that they simply couldn't understand the other.
If IT is going to be an essential and equal part of the business, it needs to become versed in the language of business first and technical terminology second. While a marketer may instantly grasp the importance of Customer Acquisition Cost, a metric that's foreign to someone in finance, they can easily meet on a common ground of profitability, growth, and executing on strategic priorities. It's incumbent on IT to do the same.
End the gymnastics
Unfortunately, some IT organizations are still pursuing a convoluted chargeback model in the name of generating "profits" from IT. The logic goes that each and every IT service, from provisioning a server to sending a single email, should have an associated cost that's tracked and charged to the business unit that originated that transaction.
These accounting gymnastics might make it appear that IT generated a profit, but it's really an internal transfer of cash, since these supposed "profits" originate inside the organization and are no more profitable than you transferring a handful of bills from your left pocket to your right.
It's certainly desirable to have a broad idea of which business functions consume the most IT resources, and also perfectly legitimate to require business units to pay for new IT projects, but spending months building and supporting systems to capture fake profits does little other than generate entropy in the best case, and make internal IT look horribly expensive, sending business units shopping externally in the worst case.
An oafish and unreasonable "Business" makes for great comedy, but in reality is a perfect recipe for an IT department on its way toward full outsourcing, or a rise of shadow IT as business units attempt to work around a shared service that's unwilling to speak their language and charging them handsomely for the privilege. Similarly, any IT department that considers itself separate or above the fray of customer acquisition, profit, and loss is not one that will be respected and successful in the long run. Except in rare cases, IT has as much claim on the term "The Business" as sales or finance, and it's time it started acting as such.
Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent over a decade providing strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com. All opinions are his and may not represent those of his employer.