Be 'The Business'

By Patrick Gray

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“The Business needs this today,” or “We need a decision from The Business” will be exclaimed during the discourse, as if "the business" were some mercurial entity, barely comprehensible and foreign; inspiring a healthy dose of fear.

Other Articles by Patrick Gray

The Project Firing Squad

The Power of Process

Design for IT

Avoiding the Axe

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With all this talk of the business, an observer might conclude that IT is a distinctly separate entity altogether, with its own distinct objectives and measures. Similarly, the euphemism of “The Customer” used when IT speaks of other elements of the company cements this distinction, implying that this customer must be sold to, serviced and then quickly abandoned in order to make way for the next customer.

This distinction is not only foolish, but counterproductive. IT is neither a separate entity with distinct goals, nor is it solely an internal support organization, servicing one “customer” and then moving on to the next.

Why does this distinction persist?

Treating IT as a customer service organization is often the easy way out for a CIO. While serving customers can be a difficult task, it is a passive endeavor. A customer service organization stands on the sidelines and is invoked at the whim of the customer, and strives to quickly and quietly do the minimum amount of work that will make the customer happy.

The outcome is generally binary: You either satisfy the customer or you do not. But, regardless of the outcome, you have dispensed with that customer and may move on to the next one. There are no difficult decisions or maverick thinking occurring, and the chances for success or failure are effectively passed from the CIO’s hands to the business/customer.

They set your agenda, and they pass judgment on your level of success or failure. This style of CIO does fine as long as they keep their heads down, customers happy and costs reasonable.

This style of CIO will also never be considered for advancement to COO or CEO, nor will they be seen as particularly valuable when talk of outsourcing or reorganization come to the forefront. They have succeeded in the ultimate IT sin: separating IT from the business.

Every organization in a successful corporation must pull its weight in contributing to continued success. While HR does not directly deal with the production or sales of products and services, it provides a critical function to the company when done well.

Similarly, the successful IT shop does not exist merely to provide a commodity service when needed, rather it should be involved in, and responsible for, executing corporate strategy. In effect, IT should be "The Business;” indistinguishable from and imbedded throughout the organization.

Breaking Down Barriers

There are two highly effective tools for breaking down the walls between IT and the rest of the company. One of the most effective was recently suggested to me by the CIO of the international arm of a large software company: instituting a “tour-of-duty” program that allows people in traditional business roles to spend some time working in IT, while IT staff takes a stint in a traditional business role.

Not only does this provide staff with experience in different areas of the organization, but business process knowledge is brought directly into the IT organization, and technical competency becomes embedded throughout the company.

No longer is IT a silo, staffed primarily based on technical ability, but IT becomes a horizontal organization, influencing and providing direct expertise rather than the former passive customer service model.

The second trick to being the business is a change in mindset. Old ideas about serving “customers” and attempting to be a passive shared service should be rendered outmoded. IT is just as legitimate a part of the organization as finance or marketing, and creating this artificial subordinate relationship does nothing to help IT’s position within the company.

As already mentioned, customer service is a passive business, and a successful IT organization should be anything but passive. You must avoid the urge to simply put a veneer on the problem by applying fancy new vocabulary to the same old attitudes; rather IT must see its relationship with the rest of the organization as one of equals.

IT may have to expand its knowledge of business functions, but it will be rewarded with increased exposure and influence throughout the organization. IT projects will also become collaborative efforts, rather than being perceived as an annoyance that must be tolerated by the rest of the corporation.

In its dealings throughout the organization, IT can no longer act as a messenger, capturing requirements and relaying them to developers, rather IT should help determine how a business process can best be facilitated through technology. IT is no longer in the customer service business, but now in the process reengineering business.

By playing a more active role throughout the organization, IT will begin to see opportunities for improvement or use of existing technologies and processes in other areas of the company. Instead of slogging through the latest requests from “them,” IT can instigate a collaborative effort to improve the company.

If your IT organization can truly be the business, the CIO is vaulted from a maintenance position to a leader who can both execute and provide the vision to improve the organization, a combination that is both indispensable and far more interesting than waiting for the latest customer service challenge.

Patrick Gray is the founder and President of Prevoyance Group, located in Harrison, NY. Prevoyance Group provides strategic IT consulting services. Past clients include Gillette, Pitney Bowes, OfficeMax and several other Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at patrick.gray@prevoyancegroup.com.