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The Changing Role of IT

August 15th, 2007 (originally published)

The Changing Role of IT

The role of IT has been changing dramatically over the past 5 years. Economic trends in the early 2000s have lead to scrutiny of CapEx spending which correlates to IT spending. CapEx in most cases has been dramatically reduced in an effort to manage costs. Offshoring and layoffs have also been common in IT. These changes force new requirements on IT and the business, specifically ensuring that IT is working on the top priority projects. In most companies there are too many IT requests and too few people to handle those requests.

The ideal IT organization is one that is strategically aligned with the business and increases the business’ competitive advantage – one that can think like the business, talk like the business and add value during the strategic business planning process. The ideal IT organization exists to be a strong business partner through a deep understanding of the business’ goals, objectives and processes.

The ideal IT organization uses technology as a business enabler rather than technology for technology sake and can work in a flexible, fast and quality focused manner.
Sadly, many IT organizations earn low marks from their business counterparts. The reasons are many but typically revolve around one main theme - IT’s inability to think like a business partner. This means that IT cannot factor in business realities into the IT game plan. As a result, the business develops low confidence that IT can be a true partner. A vicious cycle ends up occurring: since IT is not thought of as a business partner, they are not invited to the table when strategic business planning takes place. Since IT is not invited to strategic business planning, IT is not educated as to the strategic vision of the business and can only act tactically.
You may hear the business saying, “The way IT acts it’s obvious that they have no idea where we are headed. I bet they can’t even verbalize our goals and objectives. They are prioritizing the wrong projects and don’t have any passion for the really important projects. They are pursuing their own agenda.” Business folks, keep in mind that IT needs to be educated as to the business strategy and should then be held accountable for understanding and prioritizing based on that strategy.

IT is not without responsibility regarding increasing their business acumen. IT may not be proactive in not reaching out to become more involved in strategic planning and may not be focused on learning the skills necessary to think and act strategically. The IT leadership team may not be providing the correct vision and plan as to how the IT team can become a true strategic business partner. As a result IT may either consciously or unconsciously relegate itself to a support role, tactically executing against the day to day requests of the business rather than coming to the table to help design and craft a cohesive strategy. IT may then blame the business for not including them in the bigger picture. You may hear the IT group repeatedly asking, “Why are we doing this?” or the more apathetic “Yet another project”. IT needs to understand that they need to earn the respect of the business by truly being business savvy.

If the IT group cannot articulate how the customer support process works or the manufacturing process or the ordering process, then that IT group will find it very difficult if not impossible to sit at the table with the business as a true business partner. If the IT group cannot articulate the business goals, objectives and pain points, the IT group is not in a position of adding the most value to the company.

A well-educated IT group with strong business acumen is often aware of changes that can be made to improve the business’ competitive advantage – those changes often are not seen, known or understood by the business until IT brings them to light. In other words IT can be proactively suggesting solutions that help the business meet their objectives when armed with the knowledge of the business direction.

Attitudes and Behavoirs – Good and Bad

There are two common problematic attitudes that exist in some IT teams. I describe those two problematic attitudes as follows: 1) Extremely smart technically but the attitude is that all solutions must be the ultimate solution or none should be built at all; mentally stuck in the miriad of possibilities and permutations; warning signs are the on-going discussions around the same topic that never lead to a phased plan to address the problem; unable to provide feasible options and roadmap to get to end state; they “admire the problem” - unable to balance realities of business imperatives. 2) Apathetic attitude that reminds us “we’ve tried that a millions times without success” - unable to see beyond past failures; ”someone really needs to…” and “that’s impossible”; defeatist and vicitim attitude

These two attitudes need to be addressed in order to create a world-class team. Both attitudes drag down a team and create morale problems. Often, through focused coaching you can “fix” these attitudes. The hardest decision of IT management regarding people is the decision to eliminate the folks in the first category – the extremely smart but unable to create options and execute.

Often these folks are tolerated because they hold such a wealth of knowledge in their heads. If you cannot get them to address their weaknesses, you need to determine how many of these technical geniuses you need in the organization. You may tolerate one or two people in this category but be wary of a team of these folks. I would even warn about having one or two of these personalities as they can act like a cancer of negativity that spreads through the overall team.

Sadly it may be the case that a number of the smartest technical talent will need to leave the team in order to remove the negative, defeatist attitudes. This inevitably leads to fear throughout the team and comments such as, “We are losing all of our best talent”. You need to stick to your convictions - in a short period of time, with the development of those that remain and the addition of new talent, those concerns will diminish. When people leave an organization, it sends a strong message that the bar has been raised and new expectations and a new culture are being set. The action drives a desire to get on board. Keep in mind that the folks in the team who are already longing for change will help you be successful.

Ensure that the IT team has a healthy share of “change agents”. These folks have ability to see the end-state and then craft and execute a plan to get there. They overcome roadblocks and ignore the attitude that “it’s impossible”. They jump in and make it happen. They take ownership. They take risks because the management team provides them with air-cover. They set stretch goals.

Identify your change agents and hire or develop change agents if you do not have enough. Distribute those change agents across your most critical programs. Give them the ability to coach and influence others by putting them in high exposure positions. Their passion and energy will be contagious so make sure they are in a position of influence. Passion, energy and enthusiasm are critical behaviors and traits within any team and IT is no different.
Business process analysts have become more and more important in IT teams. These folks analyze the business processes, understand the IT systems especially from a work-flow perspective and work on business process re-engineering in the context of IT system changes.


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