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What Business Leaders Need to Know about IT
by Steve Weber

Before I became an executive leadership consultant and full-time board member, I was the Chief Information Officer (CIO) for two Fortune 500 organizations, and a CIO mentor/adviser for nearly 40 Gartner CIO clients annually. In nearly every case, business and IT leaders alike expressed extreme frustration with each other. In fact, I am often implored to “fix” the other party! With the ever-increasing range of new technology capabilities (AI, Big Data analytics, Internet of Things, etc.), that “disconnect” exacerbates the lost opportunities for greatly improved business operations, innovative business strategies, and projects that are routinely completed on time/budget. It doesn’t need to be that way!

Here are three pieces of IT insight, and recommendations on how to “connect” – from a business leader’s perspective (manager, director, VP, CEO).

1: They Know the Business

First, perhaps surprisingly, chances are the IT folks know how the business operates almost as well as you do. They know the actual business rules embedded in the system, all the exceptions that have been automated, and where/how all your software systems have been modified. They know why it’s hard to get information to your website, and why it takes so long to create mobile apps. They know where and why you have six different customer files.

2: With More Resources, the More They Can Do

Second, some insight into how IT folks think. Generally, they view themselves as providers of service. Essentially, they’re thinking “just tell me what to do, and I will do it,” or “please rank these 150 high priority items and I will pick them off one by one.” Then, when those are done, they will tackle the medium and low priority items (even if they provide little value to you and your business operation). This is true of projects, enhancements, and small maintenance requests.

This is why they continually ask the business for more budget and resources. The more they get, the more requests IT can complete. Thus, they get puzzled looks when executives modify or deny IT’s request for more budget.

This way of thinking leads to an almost continual focus on “the schedule” or the scheduling of projects, regulatory requests, maintenance, etc. It almost becomes an end in itself. Given the multiple requests from business peers that are “off the schedule,” it can become an all-consuming, daily activity.

3: It’s All About the Details

Finally, IT folks are “detail” from head to toe. Their estimates of work, annual plan, project schedules, project charters, executive communications, etc. are all done with a lot of detail. It is their comfort zone and provides them assurance they can deliver what’s on the schedule. They do NOT have an appetite for ambiguity.

Three Ways You Can Use This Information

What should a business leader do with this knowledge? How can they greatly improve the business leverage of new and existing technologies, and free up even more IT resources to pursue innovative investments and strategies?
  1. You may need to adjust your business planning process meetings with IT. Rather than giving them a list of usually undefined projects and requests, clearly communicate the answers to these three questions:

    What business problem am I trying to solve?

    How do I know it is a problem?

    What will success look like when we solve the problem with this IT investment?

    This could apply to the annual business plan, high priority projects, or even small business analyst requests. For example, rather than asking for a new HR system, be open about the business problems being solved such as cutting hiring time in half, reducing the time to onboarding, and orienting a new hire in 24 hours rather than 24 days, etc.

    Make sure the business analysts understand these answers so that the requirements they provide IT directly solve these problems. If the IT and monetary investment to solve is too high, cancel the project.
  2. Invest in learning about the business capability of each technology and use that to explicitly improve business operations and plans. For example, ERP systems provide common business processes and data. Mobile devices provide one-on-one customer contact and feedback. Cloud computing provides business agility via easy access to computing resources. Stay out of the detail, and make sure these capabilities are leveraged for a business benefit.
  3. Treat IT as a true business partner. Ask them to help solve some of the business problems. Ask them to identify and fix convoluted business processes. Ask them what they think and advise. Give them courage and cover to provide bad news quickly.
To “connect” these two groups is obviously more complicated than what is stated above. But hopefully this will provide a roadmap and a place to start.

Looking to improve the communication between IT and the rest of your business units? Contact the Wisconsin School of Business Center for Professional & Executive Development for more information.
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