Execs See Technology As Important - But Not IT

By Laurie Orlov

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Another survey about business/IT satisfaction gaps—yet again. The more things change, in many ways the more they remain the same. This one points out that business functional view of the importance of technology is not synonymous with IT's ability to adequately support it.  


This article revolves around Forrester's July 2008 survey of 600 business executives and how they perceived IT's role in their organizations; both in terms of importance of technology and how well IT supported that technology requirement. The results were not so positive. To be fair, this survey was conducted long before the current economic meltdown and related cost crackdowns. Unfortunately, that would probably widen, not shrink, the expectation gap.


Before delving into the survey, let’s look at this through a CIO’s lens. Aren’t we just talking about the same old “What have you done for me lately?” syndrome? You know the one I mean. The project is done, the goal is met, but amnesia overtakes the business execs who have a laundry list of new requests to replace the super-human project that was just aced by your staff. A gap like this resembles that. But a gap like this also should remind CIOs that a communicator’s job (a.k.a., the CIO’s) is never done. It is your job to remind folks what you’ve done for them lately.


But First …


The survey, which I co-wrote, sorted the responder results by primary business organizations—executive, sales, customer service, marketing, product development, manufacturing/supply chain, and finance/HR. Here are a few highlights and some words of advice about business-IT gap:


Technology dependency - Eighty-two percent (82%) of respondents agree that technology is core to their business, but only 71% see IT's role as effective in providing support to them. And in terms of IT's importance to the firm's various business functions, the product development organization (no surprise) places the highest level of importance on technology. But they are the least satisfied with IT's ability to support them.


I’m willing to bet that most IT organizations have no staff focused in this area. Product firms need IT analysts embedded in or assigned to product development organizations; despite those organizations saying that they don’t need any help. The days are long gone where engineers could (as they like to say) support their information needs by setting up their own databases and writing their own apps. But if IT doesn’t assign anyone to work with them, how would they know otherwise?


Reducing costs - Expectations are aligned but business is still not happy. Sixty-six percent (66%) of responders agreed or strongly agreed that technology is primarily used to reduce cost of business operations in their firm. And, for those firms, 65% felt IT was somewhat effective or very effective at supporting that requirement.


Business functions, however, viewed this responsibility of IT as less important to them than the other areas. When the question was viewed by all business functions (not just those that felt lowering costs was the primary role of technology), firms expressed dissatisfaction in comparison to its importance to their functions.


I attribute dissatisfaction in this area to poor communication about what IT is delivering in terms of cost containment or reduction. I am willing to bet that most IT organizations report out project outcomes, but not their ability over time to reduce the cost to onboard a new employee, for example, or process an order. The solution is to assign communication to someone in IT and measure their effectiveness.

Competitiveness - For those that think the role of IT has become more strategic to enterprise competitiveness, think again. Seventy-two percent (72%) of responders see technology as central to this goal, but only 61% see IT as effective. But product development, marketing, and supply chain executives are least satisfied in comparison to technology’s relative importance to their roles.


In my view, this perception gap falls squarely into the lap of the CEO and C-level executive team who take IT infrastructure and support for granted, don’t associate it with competitiveness, or announce new and urgent priorities so often as to create IT whiplash. The solution, however, is not simple. CIOs need to be proactive and make a credible case that relates IT to competitiveness, no matter what industry. Remember, competitiveness could be in the context of making the transactional trains run on time.


Business drivers - When asked to assess the importance of business drivers and compare how well IT is at supporting them, the gap widens. In fact, the only category where IT support quality approached the importance of the business driver was in improving end-user workforce productivity—78% viewed this as a somewhat or critically important business driver, but only 60% viewed IT as supporting this need very well or excellently.


Today’s deteriorated cost climate is a context for reviewing (with peers and boss) what is and what will be the drivers for the organization moving forward. Is this the time to consolidate and share services that were previously owned by autonomous units? How is productivity measured and has the firm been moving forward or backward on that measure?




Okay, with all this said and done there are two things to remember about surveys: the first is that given half a chance to criticize something other than themselves, execs will do so. The second is that surveys are exactly that; not qualitative, not insightful, subject to inaccurate interpretation of the question, and especially not reflective of today.


In the world of IT, surveys are particularly problematic in the context of what is IT—the group, the technology, the industry? Who knows what responders thought when they saw the question? Finally, let’s remember that this is a survey at a point in time. Your mileage may vary and these may not be issues in your firm. But either way it's probably time for you to measure perception and establish mitigating tactics to close your own gaps.


Now an independent consultant, Laurie M. Orlov is a long time practitioner and industry observer. She has over 33 years of IT experience, the last 9 years as a VP and principal analyst, research director and consultant at Forrester Research. Prior to joining Forrester, Laurie held senior IT management positions in various high-tech companies, most recently as a CIO, driving the implementation of eCommerce-based ERP solutions for a mid-market PC reseller.