Transitioning IT from a technical focus to a business focus

I’d suggest this transition is akin to any other major organizational transition (moving Marketing away from print/radio to web/social media for example). Too often, IT thinks it is unique in facing this type of challenge when it’s really not.

To foster this change, I’d suggest focusing on three major areas:

1) Lead from the top. If the CIO is a technologist, and has never left the IT department to spend a day working with line employees, and can’t articulate the company’s products, markets, and competitors, you’ve lost the game before you’ve even started.

2) Base staffing decisions on this new reality. Hire people with an emphasis on business acumen and an ability to rapidly learn new processes and technologies, rather than hiring hard-core technologists.

3) Tie comp to the change you’re seeking. To borrow from the old movie line, "If you comp them, they will come." Determine how to measure the behaviors you’re trying to engender, and evaluate and pay based on those metrics.

If this sounds too simple, it’s because like most advice, it’s easy to explain and hard to implement. I liken it to loosing weight. The bullet-proof weight-loss strategy is probably the simplest to explain, and hardest to implement: eat less than you need, and exercise more. Like weight loss, it’s easier to buy some new methodology du jour, or technology than to do the hard work of implementing a change like this.

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Comments

  1. Actually, I agree it is too simple, but because at least one area is fraught with danger, that being compensation based on desired behavior. People will game any metric to their advantage, especially if it comes at the cost of other people or areas. The only metric that counts for a business is profit, and the only fair bonus for all is one based on a percentage of profit.

    I do agree that a manager aspiring to CIO (or any C-level) should move up by crossing multiple functional boundaries, a good manager can manage most anything… but finding staff that has cross-functional experience is different. The only ‘experience’ I know of that shows people can learn, and learn again, is a university degree. Some of the best technologists I have worked with were art majors, history majors, law students…

    So, I do agree it is hard, but simple? I don’t know…

  2. HI David,

    I agree that any metric will be gamed, and that profit is the ultimate metric, but I think trying to tie IT efforts to profit invites far more problems than it solves. If a company’s quarterly profit jumps 20%, how much of that can be directly attributed to a new IT system?

    While there will always be people gaming the system, in my mind having a known metric is better than letting people do what they feel is best, and hoping to get somewhere near your desired result. Setting metrics need not be an elaborate or painful process, and if you hit too many undesired consequences, tweak, adjust, or abandon metrics accordingly.

    On your final point, a university degree is good, and I’d also look to prior work experience, and old fashioned interviewing. While people can certainly fake their way through an interview, I find it’s still the best way to assess how someone dealt with unclear objectives, and situations where they had to rapidly acquire new knowledge. I would also wholeheartedly agree with your point that some of the best IT people started in completely unrelated fields.

    Thanks for your comment.

  3. It is simple…the things that get measured get done. A good manager (not just a CIO) makes sure that individual performance and goals tie back to corporate needs and goals. CIOs need to be intimately knowledgeable of the enterprise needs and intimately knowledgeable about what their staff is doing to bring value, i.e., contributing to the enterprise goals. Gaming the system happens when a manager is not paying attention and measuring progress.

  4. The need for CIO and technologist to have business acumen is spot on.

    Thanks for sharing

    Derek

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