3 walls IT leaders must take down

Many IT leaders make three operational mistakes that build walls between the IT organization and the rest of the business. Here’s how to fix that
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The supportive IT services that delighted businesses yesterday seldom spark the same delight today. Companies just expect IT to deliver quality technology components and services at an ever-decreasing cost per unit: That's considered “hygiene.” Now they want IT to create new business value. But many CIOs and IT groups make three operational mistakes that build walls between the IT organization and the rest of the business. Those walls must be broken down.  

What stands in your way of true engagement?

The business expectations of IT today are more of an evolution than a change. It’s not that company leaders are changing their minds about what they want. They’re not deciding one day they like lemons and the next day they like oranges. They are adding to the services they need.

An important aspect of their business expectations is that they look to the IT organization to give them ideas on innovation as to how the business can meet emerging needs. For example, if the company is on a journey to improve customer experience, it may be searching for new technology answers to help anticipate customer needs and help create a more complete customer experience in a timely way.

[ When it comes to leadership, are you a mountain or a lake? Read also: 5 weird questions to ask about your leadership style. ]

To fully partner with the business, the IT organization needs to engage with the business. Otherwise, the business may come up with unpredictable or unmeetable needs. IT needs to help shape those needs, bringing ideas and educating the business as to what is possible. Here’s why this is so important: Engaging with the business enables IT to deliver business value and influences the organization to continue funding IT.

But three fundamental issues prevent IT from engaging with the business. Do any of these three exist in your organization?

1. Not understanding the stakeholders

The first mistake IT organizations typically make in trying to engage with the business is not understanding the stakeholders. The business isn’t one person and one role. Business organizations have two primary stakeholder groups: the executives and the power users.

If the power users are not happy, nobody is happy.

IT organizations typically tend to focus exclusively on the executive stakeholders. They tend to ask the executives about future plans but don’t ask the power users what they need. This leads to all kinds of problems. One of the basic principles of business engagement is that if the power users are not happy, nobody is happy. The power users, who engage with IT daily, must feel they are getting the services they need.

The consequential result of this mistake is that IT fails to pick up on issues around the way it delivers everyday needs. This failure can result in resentment/resistance, “shadow IT,” and other unfortunate behaviors. If IT were engaging with the power users in a consistent way, IT could avoid these consequences.

The remedy is to ensure IT engages with both stakeholder groups. This usually means IT needs to change the mechanisms it uses for engaging with the business. Steering committees are a good illustration of the problem. Typically, the power users are not part of the steering committee; it’s comprised of executives. Also, they are designed to make it convenient for the executives to meet. This engagement mechanism ignores, or doesn’t give enough attention to, the power users.

2. Difficulty engaging with IT

A second critical mistake that IT organizations make is focusing on making it easy for IT to engage with the business rather than making it easy for the business to engage with IT.

A way to remedy this mistake is placing IT representatives at the same location (on the same floor or in the teams) where the business users are located.

3. Outdated IT mindset

In the digital world, IT needs to view its support as a journey, evolving iteratively.

The third mistake – not changing the mindset of the IT organization – has two aspects.

The first is a result of putting in place remedies for the first two mistakes. IT has a long history of honing its capabilities for being efficient in technology functions and driving down unit costs of services. But when IT organizations start trying to “do the right thing” to partner with the business, the new engagement mechanisms often change the efficiency aspect.

Implementing mechanisms that engage both groups of stakeholders and that are easy for the business stakeholders to use for engaging with IT often are more expensive and time-consuming. They focus on the business stakeholders’ time rather than IT’s time.

IT needs to recognize that this is a key aspect of the changes it needs to make to support the business. It is likely to take more resources and require more effort on IT’s part to widen the set of stakeholders with which IT engages and design the engagement in a way that makes it easy on the business.

The second aspect of the mindset mistake is continuing to think IT services are discrete components of technology support – as was the case in the past. In the digital world, IT needs to view its support as a journey, evolving iteratively as business needs and expectations evolve.

IT organizations that change their operations to avoid the three mistakes discussed above will be able to unleash constraints and heighten the value they deliver to the business.

[ Are you leading culture change? Get the free eBook, Organize for Innovation, by Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst. ]

Peter Bendor-Samuel is CEO of Everest Group, a management consulting and research firm with headquarters in Dallas and offices around the globe.