How to build a culture of business learners in IT

Today's IT professionals need to be business consultants as much as technologists. Ellucian CIO Lee Congdon shares five steps his team used to make this transition
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Navigating the future of IT talent leadership will require more than simply hiring whiz-bang data scientists, security experts, and cloud computing gurus. To ensure your IT organization succeeds in these times of rapid business and technology changes, you must focus on developing the business consulting skills of your staff.

To respond to the changing enterprise landscape, IT teams need to be technology-focused business consultants, leading business partners who may or may not be technologically savvy. Technology teams need to understand their business in depth to provide that leadership. 

Of course, baseline technology responsibilities will remain. Regardless of their experience, business peers aren’t often focused on technology tasks like how to choose a vendor partner, the implementation effort involved in getting a solution deployed, managing technology change, and sustaining a solution over time. In addition, the technology organization must show partners improvements in business outcomes, whether that is increased revenue, lower cost, or an improved risk posture.

[ Read also, 7 ways to foster a culture of learning in IT. ]

New skills for IT's business role 

When I joined Ellucian three years ago, our IT team was very focused on learning new technologies and implementing IT and information security best practices. That effort is still very important and still underway, but we’re undergoing a fundamental shift from simply honing our technology expertise to simultaneously increasing our business expertise. We’re helping our business partners implement new solutions in a new business environment, which means our IT teams must understand the business problems we are all trying to solve. The IT team must also understand and execute the change management effort required to make the implementations successful.

Our IT employees have adopted a growth mindset that goes beyond staying abreast of the latest changes in technology.

To continue to generate good business results, our IT employees have adopted a growth mindset that goes beyond staying abreast of the latest changes in technology. More than ever, IT teams must have business awareness, possess the ability to influence, know how to lead change, and demonstrate strong communication skills. That doesn’t mean technology skills are obsolete, but these new business skills are essential to providing maximum benefit for the organization. At the core, our IT teams must now be business consultants with great technical skills.

Developing the necessary qualities for change

How does the typical IT team make this transition? There are a few fundamentals that are essential for building successful consultants. First, individuals must have empathy for the business partner’s situation and an understanding of the business problem. They must know how to define complete solutions and have solid influence with internal customers. And, they must be able to convince the organization to adopt a good course of action and implement the changes necessary. It’s also important that there is a strong trust relationship between IT and the business partner.

[ Read more from Lee Congdon: Change management will make or break key technology rollouts. ]

There is one shortcut to this transition, appealing on the surface, that teams should typically avoid: the technology quick fix. IT organizations and their business partners sometimes struggle with the temptation to buy new technology when the real problems that need to be addressed are business process improvement and the change management to deliver the new processes. The temptation to choose a technology quick fix is increased because technology is becoming easier to implement with the advent of cloud-based solutions. Process improvement and change management are becoming more difficult on a relative basis.

I recommend you avoid the temptation to start with technology when facing a business challenge. Define the problem, determine the necessary process changes, then consider the technology options. This can be hard to do. Focus your efforts on what changes the business needs most, rather than on simply installing new software or deploying a new cloud solution.

At their heart, the new roles in IT require significant comfort with change and ability to lead change.

At their heart, the new roles in IT require significant comfort with change and ability to lead change. They often require persuading partners who have been doing something one way for a long time to try a new way. You can develop these skills by introducing positive changes into your organization, particularly those with lower risk, and then ramping up the pace of change to the new required level.

As the organization becomes more comfortable with change, start to develop business skills in the team. This happens by understanding your business organization, their existing processes and current capabilities, and then making the necessary organizational and educational process changes to help them get to the improved environment. Ask your business partners to present to your IT team on the challenges they are facing and why. Offer education on topics such as finance, strategic planning, customer engagement, and presentation skills. 

Through these actions, technical teams can develop the people skills, influencing skills, and the business awareness necessary to thrive in the future.

How did our team make the leap? Five steps were crucial:

Lee Congdon is Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer at Ellucian, the leading independent provider of higher education software, services and analytics.