Be ‘The Business’

“The Business needs this today,” or “We need a decision from The Business” will be exclaimed during the discourse, as if “the business” were some mercurial entity, barely comprehensible and foreign; inspiring a healthy dose of fear.

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With all this talk of the business, an observer might conclude that IT is a distinctly separate entity altogether, with its own distinct objectives and measures. Similarly, the euphemism of “The Customer” used when IT speaks of other elements of the company cements this distinction, implying that this customer must be sold to, serviced and then quickly abandoned in order to make way for the next customer.

This distinction is not only foolish, but counterproductive. IT is neither a separate entity with distinct goals, nor is it solely an internal support organization, servicing one “customer” and then moving on to the next.

Why does this distinction persist?

Treating IT as a customer service organization is often the easy way out for a CIO. While serving customers can be a difficult task, it is a passive endeavor. A customer service organization stands on the sidelines and is invoked at the whim of the customer, and strives to quickly and quietly do the minimum amount of work that will make the customer happy.

The outcome is generally binary: You either satisfy the customer or you do not. But, regardless of the outcome, you have dispensed with that customer and may move on to the next one. There are no difficult decisions or maverick thinking occurring, and the chances for success or failure are effectively passed from the CIO’s hands to the business/customer.

They set your agenda, and they pass judgment on your level of success or failure. This style of CIO does fine as long as they keep their heads down, customers happy and costs reasonable.

This style of CIO will also never be considered for advancement to COO or CEO, nor will they be seen as particularly valuable when talk of outsourcing or reorganization come to the forefront. They have succeeded in the ultimate IT sin: separating IT from the business.

Every organization in a successful corporation must pull its weight in contributing to continued success. While HR does not directly deal with the production or sales of products and services, it provides a critical function to the company when done well.

Similarly, the successful IT shop does not exist merely to provide a commodity service when needed, rather it should be involved in, and responsible for, executing corporate strategy. In effect, IT should be “The Business;” indistinguishable from and imbedded throughout the organization.

Breaking Down Barriers

There are two highly effective tools for breaking down the walls between IT and the rest of the company. One of the most effective was recently suggested to me by the CIO of the international arm of a large software company: instituting a “tour-of-duty” program that allows people in traditional business roles to spend some time working in IT, while IT staff takes a stint in a traditional business role.

Not only does this provide staff with experience in different areas of the organization, but business process knowledge is brought directly into the IT organization, and technical competency becomes embedded throughout the company.