First Stop: Business Boot Camp
Perhaps more than anything, IT managers must understand a companys core processes and customers. The following suggestions can help get you up to speed:
Know your field. A clothing retailer and a food distributor may rely on similar technology, but these businesses use it in different ways, based on the unique challenges and demands of their industries. Thats why its key to know your market. Who are your firms main competitors? What trends are impacting the field? How will the industry be different five years from now?
You can find the answers to these types of questions by reading the business press, networking with other IT professionals, and participating in industry associations and events. Learn on the job. Many companies have programs designed to rotate promising managers through key departments and processes, providing a well-rounded view of the firm and a deep grounding in business skills. Even if your firm does not offer a formal program, you can gain a similar understanding by volunteering for committees, task forces and special initiatives. For example, you could offer to assist with the evaluation of a potential acquisition or expansion efforts into a new market.
Step Two: Polishing Your Social Skills
Just as important as knowing how to read a balance sheet, plan a budget or plot a five-year plan is being able to communicate and collaborate with colleagues throughout the company, including those to whom IT is foreign.
Strengthen your soft skills with these strategies:
Make the first move. Rather than waiting for other managers to come to you with requests, contact them for briefings on their departments goals, processes and challenges. Touching base can often reveal needs and technical solutions that were not immediately apparent. For example, the sales team may be having trouble tracking leads gained at industry conferences, and the groups manager may not realize a more robust CRM program could rectify this issue.
In short, the deeper your understanding of each business unit, the better positioned youll be to generate increased value from existing processes or data and develop new tools that make the company more competitive. In addition, by talking to people outside your department, youll begin to form valuable relationships and remain informed about new developments within the firm and industry.
Reverse the flow of information. At the same time, you must educate your business peers as to the value IT can bring. Tackle any lingering, negative stereotypes about your group. Also, reinforce the fact that IT can and does partner with business units to provide creative solutions by highlighting the strategic nature of your teams work and how it benefits the entire firm.
Talk the talk. Often, getting an idea across successfully has less to do with the idea itself than how it is presented. You may be convinced that the use of AJAX could make your companys website more user friendly. But if you talk to other executives about XML and Java, youre likely to lose your audience. Instead, speak in a language they understandthat interactive menus enhance the stickiness of the site and the number of inquires the business will receive about its services. Learning the lingo of the company, industry and business in general can help you position your ideas so they are understood and accepted by peers outside IT.
Mastering the basics of business thinking and relationship building make you a more active participant in your companys success. In addition, these skills can broaden your horizons. Learning about business can help you advance to a more senior position or even jump to a non-technical role. Knowing how to communicate your ideas and work with other managers to implement them enables you to keep pace with the changing nature of IT. And knowing both paves the way for your long-term success.
Katherine Spencer Lee is executive director of Robert Half Technology, a provider of IT professionals for initiatives ranging from e-business development and multi-platform systems integration to network engineering and technical support. Robert Half Technology has more than 100 locations in the North America and Europe, and offers online job search services at www.rht.com.