The ubiquitous presence of technology in our lives outside work makes us expect the same unfettered immediate access to technology at work, too. People can go to an app store on their phone and spend $1.99 to download software that makes it easier to do some component of their job. This flexibility of people being able to discover new ways of doing their job better is important, but it thin-slices the use of technology. Thin-slicing provides an immediate quick fix at the individual level; but when we look at technology as a competitive differentiator at an enterprise level, there needs to be more thought put into the architecture, design and vision.
Why? Because in order to truly be a competitive advantage, technology strategy needs to be aligned with the business strategy; and just like business strategy, technology strategy needs an integrated, holistic approach, not a thin-sliced individual approach.
Perhaps an example might help to illustrate the advantages of a holistic IT strategy as opposed to a thousand-points-of-light approach.
Let’s say that a salesperson decides to spend $1.99 for note-taking application A, rather than scribbling notes on a yellow pad about customer interactions, then transcribing them and sending actionable items to an inside sales/support person to follow up. The sales rep is commended on his initiative and has truly made himself more productive. But what if we were able to extend that productivity gain to all sales reps?
What if we were able to serve up note-taking application B in a company app store so even sales reps that are not familiar with searching through the sea of applications on the public app store to find app A can find and download it? What if we went further and created an integration between app B and the internal quoting system so that all these notes were available to the sales reps’ support personnel and sales managers? Would the inside sales/support person’s follow-up be quicker since he would have immediate access to those notes? Would access to those notes give the sales managers an idea of the pipeline and therefore help them to perhaps forecast better?
Perhaps app B with integration and export capabilities costs $3.99 instead of $1.99 that the sales rep paid for app A. Either app probably works well for the individual sales rep. Which is a better choice for the enterprise as a whole?
In the thousand-points-of-light approach, people often don’t realize at the time they make the purchase that the software doesn’t do all that they need it to do, or they don’t realize they might need it to integrate with other systems like the ERP or business intelligence system. If they select the solution based on desired functionality alone without regard to the underlying technology, then when other needs manifest themselves, integration and extensions become difficult. That’s when you see the emergence of a lot of spreadsheets and double entering data from one system to another, resulting in a loss of efficiency and increase in potential for errors.
It’s not just individual users who take the quick-fix route. Management teams sometimes also do the same. Top-level executives see the big picture as it relates to areas that they’re familiar with, like sales, margins, supply chain, purchasing, etc. But it’s difficult for them to see the big picture as it pertains to technology. This is where CIOs come in.
CIOs need to explain to their business peers why technology needs to be a part of the overarching business strategy. Having a coordinated technology strategy allows data from disparate systems to come together to provide an integrated picture of the business, helping executives find data to support a decision, identify a trend, figure out the elements of profitability and answer other big-picture questions that they ask.
Demystifying IT and explaining the big picture to business starts with the CIO or IT leader building and nurturing relationships with business stakeholders. Here are some ideas that I have had success with.
This seems like an obvious one, but most CIOs underestimate the amount of the communication and how one-sided it can be. Keep in mind that it’s difficult for someone at an executive level to own up to the fact that they really don’t understand technology and its role as a component of business strategy. As the CIO, you have to build bridges. You need to talk to business stakeholders in their own language. And you need to take a genuine interest in the business and understand the drivers in the business as an executive.
It’s also important for you to be a lot more open and willing to share data about your IT department. Unfortunately, as a member of the management team, you’re expected to understand theirs.
This will help them understand that IT — just like supply chain, sales, purchasing and any other business area — has some specific drivers and there are some nuances, complications, necessary give-and-take and trade-offs between long-term and short-team goals. The more you help them to see that, the more they will respect you as a business leader. This kind of communication builds understanding and credibility.
When you get an opportunity to look at the business problems, bring your technology lens to it. Don’t take the approach that technology will solve all ills, but show the business that perhaps a small bit of technology will clean up something, streamline a process or save time and money.
For example, let’s say you are rolling out a logistics application intended to replace the currently manual process of dispatching vehicles. At a deployment planning meeting, the business executives are discussing how many people to put on the training and deployment team, balancing travel budgets and people’s need for the training. The question is: Will a week of training suffice, or do trainers need to go back for round #2 after they are done with the first wave of training?
The decision significantly affects deployment costs across your 100-location company. As the IT leader, you suggest that in order to determine the efficacy of the first round of training your team can query the back-end system to see how many vehicles are actually dispatched through the new system and produce a daily report so the stakeholders can see where the training went well and where it didn’t. Remedial training is only needed in those locations that didn’t “get it” the first time. It’s not earth-shattering technology; it’s just a technology perspective on a business problem, resulting in a simple solution.
Even something small like that helps educate your business peers on how technology is part and parcel of their strategy without making an “IT show,” per se, and demonstrates that you’re collaborating with them.
You need to genuinely care about your company’s business, not just the latest and greatest technology; and this needs to come across to your peers and your customers, who are the end users in your company. At the end of the day, the business that you’re representing is not technology; it is merely enabled by it.
For example, the business that I currently work in is lumber and building materials. For me to be effective, I need to genuinely care about the pain points in that business and have great relationships with the operators in that business. The operators are in the line of fire day in and day out, and they are the first ones to tell me what works and what doesn’t work. And they are usually open because they know I care.
Spend a lot of time out in the locations where the rubber hits the road in your business instead of being sequestered at “Corporate.” Going “out there” and understanding the business gives you credibility. You may even surprise your non-IT colleagues by being more current in your knowledge of people, processes or conditions in the field than they are.
One of the pitfalls that IT folks have traditionally fallen into is that we believe in technology so we think that it can solve a lot of problems. At the end of the day, technology is operated by people. So if you care, and you get into that space where you try to understand what’s really going on at the people level, then you will be able to appreciate where they’re coming from and suggest things that make sense to them. You’ll also earn their respect.
Finally, I caution that these things take time, so you need to be patient. Sometimes you might have an idea whose time has not come. As long as you continue to try to do the right thing for the business — and you will know what “the right thing” is because you’ve communicated, you’ve collaborated, and you care — eventually people will see the value of your ideas.
Of course, there are some organizations that are so political that people don’t want to see. You may notice that, despite your best intentions and despite the fact that your idea might have merit, the environment is just not conducive. Or, it could also be that this kind of relationship building is not something you like to do, or even want to do. In that case, you need to look at yourself long and hard and decide if that is an environment in which you want to continue to play.
How can the CEOs and business stakeholders help?
Collaborative partnering between IT and the business doesn’t have to be initiated solely by the CIO. As a CEO or key business stakeholder, you can find out if you have the right IT leadership for what you want to accomplish. Maybe the existing CIO has potential but has had her hand slapped three or four times when making suggestions and has retreated in frustration.
Start by having conversations with the CIO about what she knows about the business. Find out if the CIO has any ideas about how technology could help the business. Or go to the CIO with a specific problem that you’re facing, explain what you’re trying to accomplish and see what she says. Does she come up with a suggestion that shows understanding of your business?
In the end, it does not matter which side initiates the effort. If there is alignment between business strategy and technology strategy, the company will be better off for it, and the results of that alignment will show up on the bottom line.
Malini Balakrishnan is CIO and VP of Process Optimization at Building Materials Holding Corporation (dba BMC). She thrives at the intersection of people, process and technology. She loves to operate cross-functionally, using influence to secure buy-in, change minds and achieve process optimization in support of the organization’s strategic goals. Her leadership helps IT organizations make the shift from being service providers to partners, earning the respect of principal stakeholders at the management and board of directors level. She can be reached at Malini.firstname.lastname@example.org.