Solving IT's Identity Problem

By Patrick Gray

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Corporate IT, and the CIO at its helm, seem to be suffering an identity problem as of late. While Marketing and Finance look for ways to gain competitive advantage in uncertain economic times, IT is still talking about “alignment” and by all indications battening down the hatches and preparing for cost-cutting mode.

Just as IT was starting to act like any other business unit, dark economic clouds have us retreating to the icy confines of the server room, budget and red pen in hand. So, how does one sail through difficult seas, and simultaneously navigate IT out of the commodity and cost-cutting mode?

Try these three tactics:

End the IT/HR Morass

Of any corporate entity, IT is perhaps the most dysfunctional user of human resources. We have put extensive, yet misguided efforts into streamlining a critical process, seeking to automatically mine databases for skills and outsource the interviewing process rather than using old fashioned due diligence to ensure the right people are working in IT.

“Certification surfing,” the practice of seeking out dubious certifications culled from resume databases fills IT with one dimensional characters that are quickly disposed of when a new technology comes along. While engaging “one trick pony” specialists on a consultative basis is fine, filling the ranks of IT with these types creates an inflexible organization and furthers the stereotype of IT being the refuge of socially dysfunctional techies.

Hiring people who are excellent communicators and show a strong ability to learn first and foremost, and placing technical competence a distant second will give your IT organization an arsenal of diverse talents to draw upon, irrespective of economic conditions or evolutions in technology.

Align This!

Pondering “alignment” is like standing around wondering if you should be holding a golf club when you’re playing basketball. Understanding your business, its products, markets and opportunities, is a baseline expectation. It is knowing the rules of the game and the best strategies and tactics to win. If you are in the C-suite wondering how to win the game, or worse yet, unsure which game is being played, there is a serious problem.

If you are still pondering alignment, take this simple test:

- Can you articulate your company’s products, markets, competitive advantages and opportunities to C-suite colleagues?

- Can you articulate your company’s strategic and tactical initiatives?

- How much of your time is spent considering the above, versus firefighting operational issues? If it is less than 50%, then there is trouble afoot.

- Is IT proactively deploying technology to further the above, or are you stuck in a utility morass, quietly waiting in the wings for requests for new technology while you keep the exiting infrastructure up and running?

Rather than focusing on alignment, focus on making the operational aspect of IT seamless. Much of the talk about alignment is due to so many CIOs getting stuck in an operational morass. At the CIO level you should not be worrying about networks going bump in the night, and if this is a routine occurrence, assemble a task force to fix the problem, then build an internal support organization to manage the ongoing operational tasks. This makes your life easier, and builds your staff’s talent.

PR Time

If colleagues groan or run for the exits when IT personnel are about, it is likely time for a bit of public relations work on the part of the CIO. Perhaps more important than the technology we deploy is the way we interact with our colleagues. Formal and informal surveys, end user panels and external benchmarking are good ways to see how IT looks to those that engage its services.

       Is IT perceived as a group of order takers, blindly following instructions, leaving dysfunctional systems and then heading for the hills?

       Is IT difficult to deal with, setting inflexible rules and putting colleagues through a gauntlet of request forms and administration that negates any perception of value?

Use the aforementioned tools to flush out and identify these sentiments.

Getting the view from beyond IT can help you create targeted programs to improve IT’s image as a valuable asset to the corporation. If a particular business unit struggles in its interactions with IT, launch programs to rectify the situation.

One of my favorite examples is a CIO who sent several of her people to the annual sales conference. They camped out in a hotel room and provided hardware and software support, and answered any technical questions the field sales force had. This initiative was inexpensive, unprompted and universally lauded. A two day effort and minimal cost increased the positive perception of IT by sales dramatically more than a multi-year, multi-million dollar CRM implementation.

Filling your ranks with intellectual firepower and running your organization like a business unit, rather than a shared service that ponders inanities like alignment will begin to rapidly boost the credibility of IT. Sprinkling some public relations juju on the process rapidly shifts IT from the first target for budget cuts, to the business unit that is tapped to help lead the company through challenging times.

Patrick Gray is the founder and president of Prevoyance Group, and author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology.  Prevoyance Group provides strategic IT consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at patrick.gray@prevoyancegroup.com.