Information Technology Leadership & Alignment

If you’re in business today (especially in the Information Technology space), you’ve no doubt heard of the need to ‘align IT to the business’ or something similar…you may have even heard me talk about it (see here and here). The majority of my time in my consulting practice revolves around the idea of alignment and that’s also what I’ve devoted this blog to (although I sometimes ramble on about other topics). I live and breath in the space of alignment of IT and business…..and I’m always perplexed by the lack of understanding of what it truly means to align the technology of an organization with the business goals and practices of an organization.

What does alignment really mean? It’s simple (not really…but…): it means that you look at every aspect of your business to ensure that you are taking on the IT projects that will bring you the most benefit. These projects must fit into your strategic goals and must deliver value to your organization. It’s not really that simple..there are always political agendas, pet projects and personal quirks as well as other issues that creep into the equation. which complicates things.  But…for the purpose of a definition, it’ll do.

So…what does any of this have to with Information Technology Leadership? Read on and see.

With proper leadership in IT groups, and proper leadership within the organization, the act of alignment can be made much simpler. Let me ‘splain. 🙂

As part of the push to align business and IT, there’s been a lot of talk of bringing ‘business savvy’ people into IT groups. To do this, organizations are sending their IT staff to business classes and MBA programs and hiring technology savvy business professionals to run IT groups. This approach is a good one because it gets your IT staff closer to the business and helps IT understand the terminology and business ‘speak’ as the rest of the organization.  This approach is flawed though as it lacks the two-way communication that is required to truly align business and IT.

Training your IT staff on the business lexicon is all well and good…but what about training your non-IT staff on what the IT group does and what it can do for the organization? The current approach is one-way. It turns ‘techies’ into business people….but what about putting the onus of responsibility on both sides? Make the non-IT staff truly understand what IT is, what its capabilities are, and what they can do for the organization and you might open up the communication channels even further.

Mike Schaffner had a great quote in a recent blog post (read it here):

I once had a CEO tell me that one of the things she wanted in IT was people that “talk like us” meaning they understand business issues and can explain things in business terms

It’s great that the CEO understands that she needed to have IT people that understood business principles and the business lexicon. Wouldn’t it be just as important for that CEO and the rest of the organization to understand basic IT principles and what technology can do for them? More importantly, doesn’t it make sense to take some time to understand the people that work in IT?

Rather than making “them” (IT) talk like “us” (business people), why aren’t we looking for more of a two-way communication medium? Rather than forcing IT professionals to change, why not look at the organization as a whole and change the way it operates. Integrate the Information Technology professional into the organization so they can be involved from the start on any new projects and can quickly provide input on the best way forward.

So…you might still be asking “what does this have to do with Information Technology Leadership”. Well…this is what should be at the forefront of every IT leader in the world. Scratch that. It should be at the forefront of every leader in the business world.

Before you make IT personnel ‘speak business’, why not take the time to understand what drives them? Understand why they do what they do. Most times you’ll find that IT Professionals like to solve problems using technology….which is exactly what organizations need in abundance these days. Stop forcing ‘them’ to act and speak like ‘us’ and start working together to understand what IT can do for the organization and what the organization can do with IT.

In order to “lead IT”, organizations need to look for leaders on both the IT side and business side who can bridge the gap between the two worlds and help fold IT into every aspect of the business. Bring IT into the strategic planning sessions…heck….let your IT staff take a crack at leading your strategic planning sessions. You might be surprised to find that you’ve got some very savvy folks in IT today who haven’t been given an opportunity to show their true value.

If you truly want to align IT with business, you must first lead change within the organization.  Lead the organization into a new reality and help everyone understand that IT is more than a bunch of ‘techies’…the IT group can be one of your most important assets into today’s competitive environment.

Organizations need to ensure that the proper leadership is in place within both IT and the rest of the business.  These leaders need to understand that IT and IT personnel can be a competitive advantage.  Organizations need to pull IT into the organization and make it an everyday part of business life rather than a necessary evil. To truly align IT with the business, leaders to lead the change that makes people say “I’ve got a meeting with IT tomorrow and I’m excited about what they can do for me” rather than “I’ve got a meeting with IT tomorrow and I’m not looking forward to it.”

Organizational Culture

In a post last week, I mentioned that I was reading “The Seven Day Weekend” by Ricardo Semler…I am still reading the book (I’m slow OK?) and have been reading chapter seven. This chapter begins with Ricardo discussing an organizations’ culture and the need to be very careful not to create an organization of sameness. Ricardo argues that one trap that most organizations fall into is the trap of hiring ‘the best and brightest MBA’s from the best schools’. An excerpt from the chapter is below:

By drawing students from the same social strata, subjecting them to the same system of rewards and punishment, and immersing them in the same theories, attitudes, prejudices, and practices, graduate schools of business produce an astounding level of uniformity among MBA recipients, a uniformity that is a danger to an organization.

-Ricardo Semler, The Seven Day Weekend. Page 144.

How true.

We’ve all seen the job postings out there that say “MBA from top school” or something similar. I’ve always wondered about the thought process behind that…if you only hire people with MBA’s from Stanford, Harvard, Chicago, etc aren’t you overlooking a good portion of society? By limiting the selection pool, aren’t you ultimately predetermining the type of person you hire?

By hiring only those people with certain pedigrees, an organization is predetermining their future by hiring only those people with the same backgrounds and outlook on business.

Why not take a chance and hire someone with an MBA from a bottom-tier university and see what type of outlook they bring to your organization? Or better yet, why not take a chance and interview someone as far removed from a top-tier MBA program as you can…they may bring a completely new outlook to your business.

[tags] organization, culture, Ricardo Semler, MBA [/tags]

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