Transforming IT from Servant to Strategic Partner

When companies start to think about streamlining operations, the IT department is often among the first to be flagged. To survive, IT leaders must demonstrate that their department serves a strategic role in the organization’s future. For many IT groups, that’s a big change.

Redesigning IT’s role starts with reorganizing its priorities. Senior IT leaders must focus on two points: how to make money for the enterprise and how to save money for the enterprise. Those two ends are the means to transform the IT department from a useful servant to a valued strategic partner.

“For the longest time, IT was where the gnarly IT heroes lived,” explains Ray Paquet, an analyst with Gartner in Billerica, Mass. “Without so much as a ‘by your leave,’ they rode in, solved thorny problems and then rode away again.”

But that image of the solitary techno-wizard single-handedly saving the day has gone the way of the modem. Today’s IT heroes are MVPs who know how to be team players and help the entire enterprise achieve victory.

Be a Profit Prophet

This new wave of IT leaders knows that the entire IT operation must be geared more towards solid overall business successes so that it can be recognized by everyone, as opposed to arcane tech advancements obvious to only a select few.

“We want to buy magic, but technology is not magic,” says Paquet. “It’s time to realize Houdini died and get on with making decisions based on delivering profit.  Instead of trying to amaze or pacify your customers, begin to think and act like a business partner. Justify everything you do against specific business goals.”

The key to success: Focus on business impact rather than technology for technology’s sake.

Make People Skills a Priority

In the new world, people skills are increasingly important on the priority list. “IT Operations really needs to recalibrate and get back to the human element,” advises Yankee Group analyst Laura DiDio in Boston, Mass. “It’s imperative to communicate with other people in your organization.”

While technological expertise is an acknowledged asset, an environment that spotlights tech talent to the exclusion of other skills can create a department of divas. “If you only hire and organize based on technology concerns, you will end up hearing a lot of ‘that’s not my problem’ and ‘that’s not my job.’ Yet the problems will still exist and IT then becomes expendable in the eyes of higher management,” warns Paquet.

There is no technology fix that will solve this very human problem. Instead, people skills should top IT’s “most wanted” list.

Claim the Prize

Top among those people skills is communication. When IT doesn’t communicate well with the rest of the enterprise, everyone suffers – but IT suffers disproportionately.

“There are tons of examples where IT people drop the ball, lose millions [of dollars] for their enterprises and also lose recognition for what was initially a job very well done,” DiDio says.

Conversely, it is common for IT managers to successfully negotiate potent deals for their organization. But because all the extras that were included with the deal were not communicated to the rest of the enterprise, those benefits were never collected. As a result, the organization never realized the significance of the achievement and, says DiDio, “it might as well never have happened.”

“The root causes for relationship breakdowns between IT and the business are differing expectations and a lack of understanding of the pressures, impacts and realities of life on the other side of the fence,” notes Brian Erickson, managing vice president of the Strategic Technology Solutions Practice at Hitachi Consulting in Dallas, Texas. “In the end, we believe that the closer the IT professionals are to the front-lines of the business, the more effective they can be in identifying and responding to changes.”

Redesign for Dollars

According to Erickson, there are specific steps that can help you to redesign IT operations to boost business advantage and overcome these common obstacles.  These include:

  • Adapt a competitive mindset Assume that you will have to compete with outside vendors for the opportunity to support your customers
  • Make sure the trains and buses run on time Focus on doing the core things as effectively and efficiently as possible. Get this right first, then worry about the more strategic issues
  • Utilize Customer Relationship Management concepts Your coworkers are your customers
  • Get outside assistance If there are existing issues/strains in the IT and business relationship, get some outside help to repair the relationships
  • Aim at the same targets Make sure the IT goals are tightly and directly related to the business goals
  • Utilize best practices  Wherever possible, implement industry standard methodologies (e.g., PMO, ITIL, development methodologies, etc.)

Successful IT redesign centers on developing people skills and opening communication channels, both within and outside IT. “Before you talk tools, talk to people,” says DiDio.