A fellow professional recently shared this conversation with me:
“Recently, an HR director I work with stopped me in the hallway and asked, ‘Have you had to get new shoes since you started with [our company]?’ I first thought this guy was giving me grief that my shoes needed to be shined or that he did not like my shoes. When I (in a somewhat defensive tone) indicated that I did not understand his comment and asked him to explain, he said, ‘I always see you on the go and out of your office, so I assumed that you had worn out your shoes since you have been with [our company].’
Later, I was reflecting on the exchange about my shoes, asking myself ‘Why am I away from my office most of the day?’ Is it bad that people don’t see me in my office more? Where did I learn this practice and why?’”
He went on to share that he had spent most of his career in professional services, where being out in the field with clients is the norm, and being in the office is the exception. For him, the idea of operating as if he was an external consultant serving his customers, and making the time and effort to spend time with them learning about their business came naturally.
In a professional world increasingly dominated by electronic communications, telephone- and video-conferencing, and telecommuting, it has become much easier for internal service providers to become isolated from the business processes they support and the internal and external customers they serve –- with undesirable results for everyone.
While this individual is an internal audit professional, that same way of operating applies as much, if not even more, to IT professionals at all levels of seniority.
First, the businesses and business processes IT departments support are changing constantly in both small and large ways. While IT may be told about the bigger changes, the smaller ones may slip through the cracks. When IT is unaware of those changes and cannot proactively respond to them, the value of IT to the organization is diminished.
Next, a frequent complaint about IT by business leaders is that “IT is a black box”; a separate and often impenetrable part of the business. Without a critical mass of healthy relationships between business and IT professionals within a company, a distrustful or even adversarial dynamic can be created that robs the business of the ability to leverage IT effectively, and robs IT of its ability to have a voice in the leadership of the business.
Finally, the path to professional growth and promotion for IT professionals often comes from increasing their business knowledge and applying their technical strengths to create value for the business. Those IT professionals who never leave the IT department to learn more about the business they support may find they bump up against a virtual ceiling mid-career, regardless of their technical talent.
So, what is the answer? The teller of the shoe story also mentioned his company is implementing lean manufacturing processes, a key principle of which is “Go to the Gemba”. Gemba is the Japanese word for “actual place”, and in business denotes the location where value is created for the customer. IT professionals at all levels should make it a point to get out of the IT department and spend significant time with the business departments and users they support.
Business and IT executives should consider working together to create opportunities for IT professionals to get out into the business. This could take the form of short, temporary assignments to business departments. Or it could be built into their performance goals. For example, a “Gemba” goal for IT professionals might be to spend some number of hours per year on-site visiting and speaking with their users.
(Offering reimbursement to replace shoes worn out in the process might be a nice touch, too.)
Matt Podowitz is a strategic management consultant assisting entrepreneurial, middle market and Fortune 500 clients maximize returns on investment in operations and information technology and address business considerations in strategic transactions such as mergers, acquisitions and divestitures. He is a Certified Management Consultant and Certified in the Governance of Enterprise Information Technology, and specializes in leveraging business functions that historically have been viewed as cost centers to create tangible value for the business. Matt can be reached via the contact page on his personal business blog, ITValueChallenge.com.