Don’t do IT yourself: The trick to ensuring business alignment

Picture this: A newly hired CIO of a large Fortune 500 company meets with all the C-level executives of the firm in the CEO’s office. During the meet and greet, after saying how he looks forward to setting up one-on-ones with all of them to discuss their thoughts on the IT department, he notices a bit of indifference among the people in the room.

Reflecting on this after the meeting, he sits down with the CEO and asks how she would evaluate IT’s performance to date. Without hesitation she says she was responsible for the change in IT leadership. The department was not in sync with the corporation, and all her VPs told her IT is not developing the systems needed for the success of the corporation.

She continues, “I don’t hear that sales isn’t selling the right products or that manufacturing isn’t making the correct products. Why is it always IT that is not aligned with the business?”

She along with every other C-level executive the CIO meets with over the next several weeks tell him that they hope he will be better able to determine the company’s IT needs and develop the systems the company needs to accomplish its goals.

What should the CIO do to solve this problem? What would you do?

Enter the IT steering committee

After decades leading IT, I have found only two solutions to the problem experienced by our hypothetical CIO: Dig in and learn every requirement of every department by interviewing all decision makers, or create an IT steering committee (ITSC) composed of all CEO direct reports in order to use their combined knowledge to reach consensus as to what IT priorities will accomplish the corporation’s goals.

For those CIOs looking to do IT alone, by all means, choose the first path. But my recommendation is to embrace the ITSC because the first method won’t ensure that you will correctly address the most important corporate issues.

There are many ways to implement an ITSC, but to start, you and your committee members must work together continuously on a strategic plan until the planning group can finalize an immediate one-year plan that is approved by all departments.

Then each department must take this one-year plan and decide what resources are needed to accomplish their objectives — a process that should include conversations with IT to help determine what is needed.

These requirements should then be examined by IT and senior department heads to determine initial time and cost estimates, along with expected ROI, which should be the responsibility of the requesting department.

With these plans now submitted to the ITSC, the committee, which remember is composed of all direct reports of the CEO or the COO to ensure all departments are included, then determines whether the systems requested do indeed represent what the company needs and at the speed they are needed. By doing so, the committee can determine whether staffing is sufficient or if additional resources are required to accomplish planned goals.

Note that the IT operating budget should not be finalized until the ITSC finishes this work.

If this process is followed, there is no way for the IT agenda to be misaligned with corporate goals. If it is not aligned, then it is the fault of the top leaders in the corporation, not IT.

How to handle the kicking and screaming

Inevitably, you may deal with objections to such a process, as some business leaders may feel opposed to taking on what they perceive to be IT’s work, or they may feel the process won’t result in the kind of spontaneous technology-needs requests they think they’d rather force on you.

Let me address the range of concerns you’re likely to encounter.

‘I don’t have time to do IT’s work’: It is every C-level executive’s job to ensure the right systems are in place to deliver on the company’s strategic plan. Companies that have lost business because their computer systems did not keep up-to-date with competitive forces in their industry are legion. The old software of an airline in the recent news may be a good example. And it isn’t just IT that is dealing with the fallout.

Additionally, it’s crazy to think today’s CIOs will be so smart that they alone can determine the best IT systems for the company. For that, business leaders must hold up their side of the conversation. The ITSC gives them the opportunity to help set the IT agenda for their own needs — and holds them to it.

‘IT is too rigid. Our plans change all the time’: This may be true for your business, and IT must be prepared to change priorities as quickly as needed. But the ITSC gives a framework for ensuring changes to the plan are strategic, fully vetted with line of business involvement, and prioritized.

‘I don’t understand technology. That’s IT’s job’: Yes,  senior executives do not need to understand how the sausage is made. But they must make sure the right sausage is made. The ITSC has nothing to do with the bits and bytes but rather the best use of the company’s resources, in this case IT, which is every executive’s job.

‘How should I know what new technologies are out there to exploit?’: Remember, the CIO must be a member of the ITSC and has a twofold role: (1) Participate and opine on what the company needs, and (2) be up-to-date on disruptive emerging technologies.

That said, C-level executives should at least try to be aware of technologies emerging in their area and bring them to the attention of IT.

Success is in sharing the burden

Given the importance of technology to business success today, if a company feels it is right to allow the CIO to make all prioritizing decisions for IT, then it is placing the future of the company in the CIO’s hands alone.

Certainly, the CIO should have a voice in these decisions, but the agenda must be driven by corporate consensus. Most IT systems take a long time to implement and a lot of corporate resources. And once it is up and running, any given IT system will be the method that the company uses to do its business for a long time.

There are very few initiatives that a company embarks on today that don’t involve IT systems. By establishing an ITSC, not only will your organization be better positioned to capitalize on its goals, but the CIO will also never be asked why IT is not working on a particular project, because everyone was involved in those decisions as part of the steering committee.

In my book The 9 1/2 Secrets of a Great IT Organization the subtitle reads “Don’t Do IT Yourself.” IT must be considered an integral part of the modern corporation and it must accept the judgment of all departments to ensure the company can reach its potential and achieve corporate goals.

Business IT Alignment, IT Leadership