IT must speak in business terms to connect with other business units

IT must speak in business terms to connect with other business units

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CIO Managing Your Boss

As the head of Information Systems for Schneider Electric’s North American division, Eamon O’Kelly leads an IT team of about 240 people. Just like many of today’s IT leaders, O’Kelly wants his team to actively engage with the business units and find ways to use IT to drive business value. In this interview, O’Kelly discusses some of the challenges he’s facing, as well as the approaches he’s taking to ensure that his IT team does its part to effectively engage with the business.

The Enterprisers Project (TEP): Are you finding that the business leaders at your organization understand how to use technology to drive business advantages? Are they open to those conversations with your IT team?

Eamon O’Kelly: We were actually recently talking about the consumer electronics conversations that are happening in the hallway and how they are much better received than the technology-as-part-of-your-business conversations. Those conversations seem to be more difficult to have. So people are very happy to talk about which iPhone apps they’re using, or which iPhone piggyback charger they’re using, or whatever else. But if you start talking about leveraging technology in their business, then it seems to be much more difficult.

TEP: Why do you think that is?

O’Kelly: I suspect it’s probably due to the complexity. Everybody can get their head around their device to a point. But if you start getting really detailed about how your device works, a lot of people would probably space out. I think business is more complicated. And maybe it’s because the people who are having the conversations are too geeky and not business enough, if that makes sense. They jump straight into how it’s going to be routed on the web, or the protocol they're going to use, or the platform they’re going to develop on, and so on. But we really need to be articulating things in terms of what it’s going to do for business value either in terms of growth, sales, productivity or customer experience.

TEP: Are you doing anything to get your IT team to speak in business terms?

O’Kelly: One thing I’m working directly on with my staff is: “Let's start to articulate our successes in terms of what it's done to the business. Rather than saying we've launched Oracle B.12, let’s talk about the revenue growth, let’s talk about the experience from the user perspective and whether it has helped our contributors. Let’s have a business conversation with an IT flavor rather than an IT conversation with maybe business awareness.

TEP: When you work with IT, do they get it, or are they still in that mindset that it’s the technology that matters, and let the business folks figure out the business side?

O’Kelly: One of the things I’m doing is hiring a new Business Relationship Team, and I want that team to be very, very credible with the business. They’re going to represent in the IT team. And the business leaders are actually helping with the hiring; they’re actually doing interviews with the candidates. So we have probably 20 percent of the organization that has to be pure business focused and then we do need another part that is operationally focused and another part that is technology focused. And probably we can’t put the pure technology play people in front of the business because they just don’t speak the same language. But I absolutely need to have a large part of my team that can sit with my business peers and business counterparts and have a “what is this going to do for the business” conversation. So they basically need to interpret the IT part for the business.

TEP: Can you elaborate some more on this Business Relationship Team and how you envision it functioning?

O’Kelly: We are going to have as many as eight people who are focused on driving the business verticals. They may focus on our services, our products, or maybe our partners’ products. They’ll work directly with those businesses to really understand where they go.

The profile is basically something like a CIO/CTO. But bear in mind they’re going to be the IT contact point for businesses that may be as large as $8 billion in North America, and they’ll work with them as the head IT person. The profile is they know what’s going on with technology, they know what’s going on in the marketplace with our competitors, they know what’s going on with our customers, and they also know where the business wants to go strategically. They’ll basically take all those insights to help drive the priorities of the IT organization. In essence this team will be the voice of the business in pushing our investment in corporate technology so that when it finally delivers, it will actually be compelling to the business.

Read Tom Schmidt's article, "How to talk like a business strategist."

Eamon O'Kelly is an energetic leader with a proven history in building and leading high performance, multinational teams in engineering, consulting and IT. In his current position, Eamon leads the IT team of 240 people, with an IT budget greater than $130 million.

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