Here’s why it can take four years to make your IT department work better for the business

Here’s why it can take four years to make your IT department work better for the business

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July 28, 2014
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One of the most exciting and most challenging duties a CIO can (and should) take on is trying to make their IT organization work better for the business. This is especially challenging in companies where IT is still an order taker or in maintenance mode. Even though your objective is to improve the enterprise and prepare it for the future, you can’t completely turn an organization upside down without impacts. Your business is often absolutely dependent on systems being reliable, and you will break things when you change things. And if you break things you may be putting your business at risk, so you’ve got to make some good decisions. But it can still be done. It just takes time.

How much time? Well, that’s going to depend on where you are today and where you need to be. If you are an IT organization that does not have a lot of capabilities, it can be a multi-year journey simply to improve production, improve project delivery and to improve your relationships with the business. In fact, the proverbial two or two-and-a-half-year stint as a CIO often occurs because the CIO has the capability of making a set of improvements but doesn’t realize that the rules of the game are going to change after two years, so they move on. The work doesn’t stop once you improve production, project delivery and your relationships with business. It’s just getting started.

If production is completely broken and you fix it, that’s great, but that’s no longer enough because by the time you're done the environment has changed and you need to go on to the next step. Realistically, it can take 18 to 24 months for a new CIO to observe the talent they have, get to know the current state of production, identify the business challenges, and see what the cost challenges are so that they can get the right people in place. After that, it could take another 12 months to improve project delivery and get the IT organization to a basic level of competency. It could be a four-year effort to become a business partner and gain trust across a fair amount of the organization.

Don’t be discouraged. All is not gloom and doom. Four years sounds like a long time, but once you get operations running smoothly, put production under control, and build those business relationships, you’ve positioned yourself for great results. And along the way, you’re going to have interim successes that can be quite rewarding. You can savor those successes and ensure that you are working hard to replicate them across the organization.

From the beginning, it is important for your business partners to understand that these aren’t overnight changes. It’s difficult to change any large organization, particularly an IT organization, where often the reason you got into trouble was because of legacy systems and technology debt. It may require changing some people, changing incentives, and it certainly will involve changing processes. You’ll have to think about your IT organization in different ways, multiple times, as you journey through the maturity curve. But it’s exactly that fresh perspective that can make all the difference.

What was the biggest challenge you faced during an IT turnaround? Tell me about it in the comments.

Lee Congdon is CIO of Red Hat. His role includes enabling Red Hat’s business through services, such as knowledge management, technology innovation, technology-enabled collaboration, and process improvement.

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Lee Congdon is Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer at Ellucian, the leading independent provider of higher education software, services and analytics. He is responsible for Ellucian’s information technology, including enabling the business through technology services, information technology strategy, delivering next generation solutions, process improvement and advanced data and analytics. 

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