"Many IT departments are kicked around by the circumstances: fighting fires wherever they appear, dealing with botched-up, antiquated systems, heterogeneous infrastructures, incompatible interfaces, undocumented specifications and shattered, often overlapping applications. Between two breaths, business and IT people may find a few moments to discuss requirements, ideas, plans - speed-dating, really. Then it is back to the usual.” - Ron Tolido, CTO of Capgemini.
This quote provides great insight into the challenges of IT: it is often focused on its operational role and unable to play a strategic part in the company’s business.
IT is generally seen as an operational function that provides services to the business. Having technical skills and knowledge that others in the organization lack is considered a great asset. However, even though IT professionals are skilled and respected, they are often seen as service providers and a necessary overhead to the business.
Interestingly, IT professionals are often complicit in this view. This role has become the norm and is accepted without question. Part of the reason for IT focusing on operations is necessity. There are so many projects that IT must deal with just to keep the engines running optimally. Often there are fires to put out, which means that everything else must take a back seat until the issues are resolved.
When IT professionals sit down to think about strategy, they are often focused on how to get better use out of technology by making the engines more efficient and cost-effective. The IT team is often dedicated to reducing costs that impact the bottom line (and typically not revenue-generating, top-line activities).
Certainly, there are times when the lines between IT and business move closer together. Perhaps two of the most important efforts where IT meets business are e-discovery and compliance. For example, most users take email for granted as a means to communicate. However, email is actually evidence in the legal discovery process. Corporate and organizational information, or the lack of it, can result in millions of dollars in damages. Additionally, it can impact a company’s brand, which can result in losing customers, partners and employees. It is not only important to have the data, but you must also be able to access and retrieve it in a timely manner.
If you want to start marrying IT directly to the business, then e-discovery and compliance are a good place to start leveraging technologies like federated search and indexing to better manage your content.
The next step – and it is a big one – is digging deep in the DNA of IT to directly impact the top-line growth of the company. IT professionals must learn to ask themselves every day what new products and services can be offered by leveraging technology. When IT combines right-brain creative thinking with left-brain logical thinking greater leaps in value are achieved.
Let’s use search and indexing as an example. As mentioned, search and indexing are often used for e-discovery and regulatory compliance mandates. But what about using a universal search application as a tool to give enterprise end-users greater access to the company's data? We create so much content using any number of applications, instead of looking for data via the various application interfaces, having a single pane of glass to get to any and all content in the enterprise would provide huge increases in productivity and efficiency.
This concept should not be a leap for most people, but since no one is complaining about it or demanding it, it isn't a priority. However, if you think about the power of being able to easily access content – data and information – mountains can be moved when this ability is provided. IT professionals must transcend their nuts-and-bolts view of the world and think about the business and how they can apply technology to elevate the companies they work for. Only by combining the creative and the logical can real leaps forward be made.
IT needs to be invited to the business table for several reasons to provide operational services, however valuable they are. Additionally, IT should be consulted on what new ways technology can increase market share, raise brand awareness, improve revenue, increase profitability and develop new products, services and markets. This cannot be simply an order from your boss or this month’s initiative. It needs to be a shift in mindset and a cultural change that reaches all levels.
Asking IT professionals to be more creative in their day-to-day business isn't crazy. Most IT professionals I know have dozens of ideas and opinions on improving products and services. They are constantly pushing their vendors for better features, are often adopting new gadgets for personal use, are aware of the latest technologies and trends and they love mixing it up with their peers. The problem is that they are rarely asked (or more to the point, listened to) or included on this side of the business.
There should be incentives that drive this process. The people that make the real money in the company are those who drive top-line growth. Yes, bottom-line cost reduction is critically important, but Wall Street cares more about growth than it does about profitability. This is an important point for nonpublic companies as well, since it is an indicator of what we value as a society.
During these tough economic times, change can be instigated. Companies should look to IT for new ideas and should create a culture that includes them as a part of the business process. CEOs need to find ways to communicate with IT, despite the fact that they may be intimidated by their technical knowledge – which, I think, is one of the big reasons for the divide. More CIOs need to become CEOs – which is not the typical trend. Additionally, CIOs need to see themselves as more than service providers whose primary job is to keep the lights on. Instead, they need to view themselves as resources that can help ensure that the electric bill is paid, by generating income for the company.
A former manager of mine once told me that there was nothing more strategic than revenue to a business. Beyond the necessary role of keeping the databases running and email working, when IT can actually generate revenue, IT will be truly strategic to business.
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