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8/23/2007
08:15 AM
Mike Bohlmann
Mike Bohlmann
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Making IT Decisions That Matter

An effective IT leader will work with a company's business managers to ensure that all IT decisions make an impact where they should

As an IT leader and decision-maker, every time an opportunity comes around, it is important to think about what sort of change or improvement is the goal. But perhaps one of the hardest things though about being an IT leader is keeping the technology from playing too large of a role in the decision since it comes so easily to us. The most important part of an IT decision is not the technology. Yes, you read that right.

There are a few ways to tell if an IT decision was made inappropriately after it has been implemented. If a new system does not get used by a large percentage of the targeted users, it is a good sign that at least some part of the decision was the wrong one. When there is no positive return in the form of cost savings, revenue generation, or new opportunities, an IT project could be said to have failed since every IT project is an investment of time and resources that are in limited supply. When executive management talks to IT for the first time about a large project only after it is done, it is a sign that something is fundamentally wrong. The root cause starts in business-IT alignment.

One of the biggest issues facing IT leaders in every size organization is business-IT alignment. Alignment refers to how well IT serves as an enabler for a business's goals and opportunities, including how quickly it is able to complete its work. Small and medium businesses have perhaps the greatest opportunity for fomenting business-IT alignment due to their lower levels of inertia than big business. That does not make it easy or automatic though.

A study written by Jerry Luftman, Raymond Papt, and Tom Brier and published in the Communications of the Association of Information Systems discussed several enablers and inhibitors of business-IT alignment. Among the enablers, the authors listed:

  • senior executive support for IT
  • involvement with business strategy
  • IT understanding of the industry
  • partnership between IT and the rest of the business
  • good IT project priorities
  • demonstrated IT leadership

While the lack of these things can inhibit business-IT alignment, an inability of IT to meet its commitments can also inhibit business-IT alignment as trust in IT from executive management dwindles. There really is not much among those enablers and inhibitors that talks about technology-based issues. The key enablers to good business-IT alignment center on maintaining a good relationship with executives and lower level managers while also having a good business sense.

The second issue is one that is perhaps more easily addressed because it focuses just on you, not on anyone else. There are several ways for an IT leader to get a feel for how the business operates and the issues that face the business industry as a whole. The first step you should take is to educate yourself. Every IT leader needs to have an understanding of business not only so you can translate business requirements into technical requirements but also so you can see the bigger picture. Being able to talk to executives and business managers in the terms and language they speak goes a long way to fostering good communications and coordination. If you do not already have that business knowledge, a course at the local college or university in business administration or accounting might be a good starting point to get a jump start. Once you have the basic understanding of business concepts, you are able to move on to building relationships with business managers and other employees in the company. From them, you can learn the specific issues, goals, and opportunities in front of your organization to help guide the planning and prioritizing of IT projects.

Just as you begin to build relationships with business managers though, you also need to work on building a strong working relationship with executives to address the other enablers of business-IT alignment. If you are lucky, you are already on the executive team, but not every organization sees IT as a strategic component of its operations. You need to start building that communication pathway between upper management and IT management. Find out how you can make quarterly or semi-annual presentations to executives and other important people in your organization about the IT projects you have underway and are considering. Be sure that you speak about actual benefits of those projects to the business, not their technical features. You can also use the opportunity to be present for the rest of the meeting to point out problems, goals, and opportunities where IT can help. Being able to intelligently offer an IT-based solution to a business problem quickly builds the rapport you need. A symptom of poor business-IT alignment would be implementing a migration to a Linux-based system for desktops and servers because the IT leaders think that it will result in more system stability and security. Good business-IT alignment would be shown when the IT leaders approach the business leaders with the cost benefits or new capabilities that would be enabled by implementing an open source-based environment.

By working hard to keep communication flowing between managers and IT, it becomes possible to really impact the business in a positive way with IT decisions that are made for the right reasons.

Mike Bohlmann has more than ten years experience as a web developer and an IT manager. He is currently an IT manager at the University of Illinois where he is in the process of completing work toward his Master's degree. Mike's research is focused on IT management, leadership, and services.

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