Break down the silos between IT and the business

Break down the silos between IT and the business

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The Enterprisers Project interviews Bill Weeks, senior vice president and CIO at SquareTwo Financial, about transformation in the CIO role.

The Enterprisers Project (TEP): What kind of transformation needs to happen for IT teams to deliver the best business value?

Weeks: I think the biggest transformation IT teams need to make is truly thinking about how what they do matters to the business. In the last two roles I have had as a CIO, I've been asked to refocus IT teams that have become disconnected from their business counterparts and failed to understand the business purposes for the work they were doing. The end result for these businesses was that IT had become a liability, not an asset.

The transformation that needs to occur is multi-faceted. Every organization is different and has different needs, so I start by interviewing both the IT and business stakeholders to understand their challenges and needs. Then you can have a basis from which to communicate what changes will need to happen and why.

What I have found in common is a need to break down the traditional silos between IT and business stakeholders at all levels. To do this, you need to encourage communication and teamwork across teams. It normally starts with IT leaders understanding the business needs, how they are addressing those and then communicating those needs to their teams. Over time, that can happen at all levels of the organization. If you get to a point where IT staff members are asking the question, "What business problem are we solving?" when involved in solutioning, then you know it is heading in the right direction.

TEP: How does such a transformation take place?

Weeks: Accountability and trust are important. Not only do the teams need to be actively engaged with each other, they need to be committed to delivering on mutually agreed goals. If the tech side doesn't deliver, or makes things more complicated than they need to be, business people get frustrated and pull away. Likewise, if the business teams are not engaged and providing knowledge of business practice and feedback, the tech team will struggle to deliver valuable solutions.

The measure of success is when there is true (and equal) passion across both IT and business teams for solving the challenges that are presented. Then the organizational lines begin to blur and there is no Business and IT--it's one team working together.

TEP: Does training help achieve this transformation?

Weeks: As for training, it all depends on how you choose to solve these particular challenges. I implemented an Agile Scrum methodology at the last two companies which by its nature forces more interaction between the teams. It also requires training for both business and tech teams who have not worked together in this fashion before. In the end, it's well worth the financial, time and people investments if you end up with the cooperative, collaborative environment you need to truly be successful.

TEP: Not all necessary or valuable IT projects have an ROI that can easily be defined. How do you cope with that issue when considering the business benefits of new deployments?

Weeks: ROI can be a very tricky subject when it comes to IT projects. Any IT leader needs to beware of investments that look good on paper but truly don't deliver any value. Some of the best projects I have worked on broke even on paper, but had a significant intangible value to the organization that over time added up to real savings and/or revenue.

TEP: So how do you determine which projects add real value?

Weeks: Start with a common-sense approach. For example, a number of years ago I had an employee who came to me with a great idea to replace our email platform. We were using a system he didn't like and a vendor had helped him create a great ROI presentation that proved the value of the new system.

So I asked a few simple questions. Is the new platform going to be significantly cheaper to operate than our current system? Is it going to create a significant additional revenue opportunity or make us more efficient? Are we on a 'burning platform' that is doomed to fail and create a business risk anytime soon? The answers: No, No, No. At the end of the day I didn't like our email platform either, but I couldn't justify the expense of replacing it without a significant benefit to the company. I've revisited the same questions for countless other platforms with the same paper justifications.

Use that common sense approach to understand the real benefit to the business--and don't do it alone. Involve other people who can help you understand different perspectives about the proposed investment. Sometimes there is a real hard dollar savings that the company can achieve, and sometimes there is a real revenue opportunity. Make sure the stakeholders are committed to achieving the benefits. Do they have these goals built into their annual plan? If they don't, maybe they should.

TEP: How do you choose which projects to say no to?

Weeks: IT leaders are in a natural paradox. I encourage my teams to be positive about new projects and start with a "yes we can" approach to getting things done. We refer to it as a bias for action. IT teams however will never (and should never) be staffed to the levels where they can work on every project that comes in the door as soon as someone wants it delivered. So, projects have to be vetted, prioritized and sometimes we have to say no. The balance is in delivering value appropriately without become the department of No.

For more on this topic, watch Merv Tarde's video about how CIOs have to look at every aspect of the business.

Minda Zetlin is a business technology writer and columnist for Inc.com. She is co-author of "The Geek Gap: Why Business and Technology Professionals Don't Understand Each Other and Why They Need Each Other to Survive," as well as several other books. She lives in Woodstock, N.Y., but is planning a move to the Seattle area in fall 2014. Find her at www.mindazetlin.com.

Minda Zetlin is a business technology writer and columnist for Inc.com. She is co-author of "The Geek Gap: Why Business and Technology Professionals Don't Understand Each Other and Why They Need Each Other to Survive," as well as several other books. She lives in Snohomish, Washington.

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