Digital transformation: How to forge tighter business partnerships

True partnerships between IT and line of business leaders can lead to bigger ROI for digital transformation projects and more tailored solutions. Here's how to start building a culture to support that.
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IT spend is set to skyrocket in 2021 – according to Gartner, $3.9 trillion will be spent on IT projects worldwide this year, up more than 6 percent for 2020.

But IT spend does not automatically translate to favorable business outcomes. For companies rebounding from a year of disruptions, ensuring IT investments actually help achieve goals, increase profits, and move other business levers is critical. However, contrary to popular belief, technology isn’t the driving force of business success and growth – instead, it should be viewed as an accelerated path toward their goals.

In fact, I would argue that IT generally shouldn’t own projects within an organization. Instead, ownership responsibility should fall to line-of-business (LOB) leaders and stakeholders. Ideally, LOB employees should analyze the business need for a new IT solution, determine its objective, and identify the KPIs that will measure success.

IT shouldn’t be brought in until LOB leaders and stakeholders perform much of this pre-work, like identifying business value, establishing KPIs, and determining needs from teams – but it’s also important not to read IT into the project too late.

[ Get exercises and approaches that make teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

What does a reimagined role for IT look like?

Rethinking the dynamics of IT within your organization doesn’t give the group any less autonomy or influence. It simply puts them in a much stronger position to develop solutions with the best outcomes. Specifically, when LOB employees are champions of IT projects in this re-imagined workflow, your organization achieves several important advantages:

Projects are built for outcomes from the ground up. Traditionally, departments within an organization engage IT when they believe they have already determined the entire scope of a challenge. However, IT often “catches” gaps or hidden challenges in the predetermined problem. In this new dynamic, LOB employees feel empowered to proactively engage with IT and collaborate on defining the challenge and solution. This allows IT to shift from a generalist approach to a more product-focused strategy.

IT is less of a “cost center.” With LOB stakeholders leading IT projects, the financial burden of large undertakings shifts off IT and the cost of the project is distributed more fairly. Internally, IT is then seen as a business enabler rather than simply a cost center. Additionally, this model creates a greater opportunity for ROI all around. Because KPIs and desired outcomes are determined from the start with the help of IT, the total cost of the project is more easily recouped.

Visibility into IT is increased. IT projects have a much greater chance at being celebrated and shared due to increased partnership among leaders. Why is this important? It makes this newly nimble IT group more visible within the organization. Instead of a CIO celebrating the completion of a successful project, it could be the CEO.

Digital transformation has become even more of an expectation within the C-suite, and this level of recognition helps show the effort is becoming part of the culture, with IT being embraced by many different departments and functions.

[ Are your digital initiatives truly transformative, or just an upgrade? Read also: Digital transformation vs. IT modernization: What's the difference? ]

Creating a new kind of partnership

True partnerships between IT and LOB can lead to bigger ROI for projects and more tailored solutions. But fostering this kind of cooperation will require work on everyone’s part. Here’s how to start building the kind of culture necessary for better IT collaboration.

Give IT firsthand experience. Many IT projects fail because the engineers and programmers working on a solution are doing so in a vacuum – it isn’t uncommon for IT to have little to no firsthand knowledge of the department they are working with.

Consider empowering IT members to spend time with different departments or even shadow a department for an extended period of time. Immersion in a LOB’s day-to-day familiarizes IT with how and why things work within that department. Knowledge is then no longer siloed but democratized. 

A key to achieving greater cooperation is to position employees in the front seat as a solution is developed.

Assign champions and build IT steering committees. A key to achieving greater cooperation is to position employees in the front seat as a solution is developed. Each department should have a “champion” assigned to the project to make sure it is progressing, to share updates with other team members, and to get IT answers and access when they need it.

Additionally, if a solution involves more than one department, consider forming cross-functional and cross-domain IT teams so every LOB can be involved in creating a solution they will ultimately use.

Perform post-mortems. Consider performing post-mortems on projects to ensure cooperation is working. Gather all stakeholders to share pain points, bright spots, and opportunities for the next project. But also include a quantitative element. Ask each business unit to bring real data and numbers to the table to tell the story of the solution, and determine what, if any, changes need to be made.

It may seem nuanced, but shifting to allow LOB stakeholders to champion their own projects is a better operating model. Frontline and LOB employees know exactly which challenges and inefficiencies they face on a daily basis – and their voice should be much louder in the conversation about the future. When IT and LOB form true partnerships across the organization, digital transformation becomes a much more consistent and successful effort.

[ Culture change is the hardest part of digital transformation. Get the digital transformation eBook: Teaching an elephant to dance. ]

Josh Perkins
Josh Perkins is a National Field CTO at AHEAD. With over 15 years of IT leadership experience, he has spent time in roles across customer, OEM and partner organizations.