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IT Credibility Challenge #1: Understanding

By Patty Azzarello

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The reality is IT remains misunderstood. While there is little disagreement about this, I’ve found there is great difference of opinion about who should fix it. The feedback I get on this topic falls into two basic categories:

  • CIOs who accept it as their job; they want to bridge the gap and improve understanding.
  • CIOs who think the business should change; they resent the problem and see the business team as basically stupid, over-demanding and not wanting to take responsibility for anything.
  • The fact is not only do most business people not understand IT, they don’t want to. They want the benefit IT provides, but don’t really care to understand the technology. The problem is, if you are not understood your credibility will be low and your job will be harder. Any executive with low credibility will be faced with lots of obstacles and stupid questions in the form of: Why are you doing that? Why does it cost so much? Why can’t we cut the budget? Why aren’t you doing this instead?

    Executives with high credibility get stuff done faster without this hassle. And CIOs with high credibility get their “seat at the table” and can influence IT and business decisions on the front end instead of always needing to react to them. Understanding breeds credibility, and credibility breeds political power, which gets the target off your back.

    It’s Up to You

    Your business counterparts will probably never make the effort to bridge this gap. And, in reality, business people generally don’t have the capability to understand what you do even if they wanted to. Because of the vastness of technology and years of experience you have, it is just not possible for a non-technical executive to understand and appreciate what you do, let alone how you do it.

    So, even if you feel like this misunderstanding is unfair, that it’s the fault of the business, or is bad publicity brought on by consultants, your choices are either to step up to improve understanding, or continue dealing with the problems that come from being respected only as a technology guru who doesn’t understand business.

    First and foremost, however, before any real change can take place, you have to be doing a good job. I know this goes without saying, but this is the first step in building credibility. The last thing I recommend is to go forth trying to get recognition and build credibility if the results aren’t there to back it up. Still, you must do both. Either one on its own doesn’t work.

    Many people, not just in IT, believe good results should be enough to earn recognition and credibility, but it’s not. Good work does not stand on its own. For an IT department this is especially true. Think about it, if the business doesn’t understand IT in the first place, they are not capable of recognizing what is good work. It’s like being hired as an Opera critic only having listened to Rock & Roll your whole life. It’s up to you to get the value of your work recognized.

    It is possible to create a way for IT to be understood by the business, but it has to be on their terms, not yours. There are four key areas you will need to focus on:

  • Forge relationships with business counterparts;
  • Map IT to business-defined outcomes;
  • Deliver and Manage IT services in a way the business can understand; and
  • Communicate consistently outside of IT.
  • Relationships

    Credibility and political power do not come from technology, they come only from relationships. You will need to identify who the stakeholders and influencers are in your unique environment and build relationships with them.The usual suspects are the CEO, the CFO, the COO, the CMO, and the GMs of the business units. Take some time to really understand their jobs. What do they care about? What keeps them up at night? How they define success? What is their view of a business disaster? What is their view of an IT disaster? What are the drivers and pressures internally and externally they are dealing with in their world?

    Developing relationships with your peers and stakeholders is a big step forward in developing a better understanding of IT throughout your organization. And the benefits of positive relationships are inversely proportional to stupid questions and obstacles.

    Mapping IT

    You will find that taking the time to get to know your peers in other parts of the organization will help you clarify and make even better decisions in IT. You will naturally start tuning your communications about what IT does in a way that better fits into their view of the world.

    But it’s worth doing this explicitly, as well. Create a list of the key business initiatives or priorities you take from conversations with your business counterparts. Then, when you present IT plans, budgets, or review progress, always map your discussion to something that has been defined and named by the business.

    Using their names and vocabulary for business priorities when you talk about IT will put you leagues ahead in creating understanding for what you are doing. For example, the label “PeopleSoft contractors” in your budget will attract scrutiny and hassle where the label “Grow Revenue in Eastern Europe” will be understood and less likely to be questioned.

    Deliver and Manage

    IT delivers many services to the business, but many IT organizations lose the opportunity to get recognized for what they deliver either because they don’t communicate about it, or because the business doesn’t understand what they are saying. Let the business define and name the services and how you measure them.

    For example, instead of a user coming to your help desk and finding “SAP Database Support” and a monthly application availability metric (which are IT definitions), call it “Get Help with SAP Financials” and report specifically on the performance of the order entry system at quarter end—like the business would do.

    Communication

    Finally, developing a communication plan is an important part of building relationships and credibility. Don’t leave this to chance. Decide who your stakeholders are and develop and schedule a communication plan to keep them informed. This will likely be a done by a combination of emails, short reports, lunches, and in-person meetings. Have your team help you build the communications and have your assistant help you schedule the meetings. Manage it like any other program and keep it consistent.

    The Payoff

    IT is misunderstood and you can’t change that. But you can improve your rate of success if you take it upon yourself to bridge the gap. The result is you will be able to get more done by removing the obstacles that come from poor credibility, and you will develop the political power necessary to get your seat at the table.

    Editor’s Note: This is the first article in an eight-part series based on Patty’s first CIOUpdate column How to Overcome IT’s Credibility Challenges.

    At age 33, Patty Azzarello became the youngest general manager at HP. At age 35 she was running a $1B software business. Patty is now the founder and CEO of Azzarello Group, which delivers practical, experience-based tools to CIO’s and other business leaders through products and services including articles, online programs, executive coaching, public speaking & workshops.