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5 Ways IT Can Crush Corporate Caste System

C-level types talk the talk of IT-business partnership, but at the end of the day you must learn their world and assert your expertise.

The grim reality is that there's a caste system in corporate America today. At the top sits "the business" and below it, IT and operations. Most C-level types have learned to talk the talk of partnership, but at the end of the day, when the business says jump, IT has little choice but to ask how high.

The good news is that we in IT can improve our lots in life and our companies' bottom lines with empathy. And not the kind that forces us all to link hands and sing kumbaya; rather, the kind that Wired magazine called "a revolutionary force for change."

Here are five sequential steps that enlist empathy to crush the corporate caste system:

1. Question the value of disintermediation.

If you're in IT, your business stakeholders are middlemen, between you and the customer. And you're lucky if it's one degree of separation. Many functions in large IT shops need to play six degrees of Kevin Bacon to get to the customer.

So the first question to ask: What do business stakeholders bring to your game? If your answer is "requirements," then you might just be doe-eyed enough to think there are rich, thoughtful layers behind them. A solid business strategy, perhaps. Real customer voice. The next big idea. Or at least the next 20 little ones that pave the way.

You'd be wrong. On the strategy question, most of what's paraded out in large orgs is so bereft of real data and so vanilla at the industry-level that it comically frames playing defense against your competitors as competitive advantage. On idea generation, three words come to mind: ideas are plentiful. And those are the pleasant three. The not-so-pleasant three are "absolutely," the f-bomb and "worthless."

In most of the orgs I've worked in, the main role that your stakeholders play is governance -- bureaucratic controls over budget and funding that more often than not simply reaffirm the status quo.

Now here's your first opportunity for empathy, a chance to practice the first rule of Roman Krznaric's Six Habits of Highly Empathetic People: Cultivate curiosity about strangers.

Put yourself in the business's shoes. What can they deliver without you? Or more precisely, at your price point? (Because we all know that if they need something fast or unconventional, they'll pay a premium to engage a vendor, because vendors staff their shops with elves. Elves!)

Given that we're in the information age, here's the answer: nothing. In this economy, IT is execution. And ideas without execution are like bikes without seats -- and just as comfortable. So whether or not you realize it, you have leverage. And empathy can help you understand that fact.

The first step to exercising that leverage is to learn everything you can about your business. Don't think MBA -- it's a money trap. Pick up a few books, a +5 cloak of darkness and ...

2. Shadow the business.

The Achilles heel of most nerdlings is that they don't (usually) understand the business that they're asked to serve. That's partly from years of disinterest and partly from years of buying the line that everyone should focus on the one thing they do best. It's a line because you can do more than one thing well, especially when the stakes are this high.

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Fill the business knowledge void, and quickly. No need to crash any parties. You'll be surprised by how cheap invitations to business conference calls are. Participate if you like, but if nothing else be a fly on that wall.

Here's what I've learned again and again by exercising habits two and three of highly empathetic people (discovering commonalities and trying another person's life) as well as by shadowing stakeholders: We in IT are living parallel lives with our business stakeholders. We can't write code or deploy infrastructure because we keep going from meeting to meeting to meeting. And they can't form a business strategy to save their lives. Period.

No wait. It's actually stranger than that. It almost seems as though some Wharton professor with keen business sense and serious influence -- someone who I imagine wears a mask and calls himself Dr. Inertia -- decided that attending meeting after meeting after meeting is how stakeholders should develop a business strategy. And here's the weird part: You could win the global presidency of all businesses in a landslide by running on a single campaign promise: End all meetings. If the business world has a frenemy, it's meetings.

Anywho, your new powers of empathy will teach you a lot during this step (i.e., be kind to your stakeholders because they're well intentioned enough). Fold that learning into what you already know about how the road to hell is paved (i.e., just because their heart's in the right place doesn't mean they understand a service-oriented architecture). Focus them on describing their business problem, not the IT solution. Challenge them to think critically and to be driven by data. And never, ever kiss their ring.

3: Shadow the customer.

Not in a creepy "I'm in your bushes" kind of way, but with data, both quantitative and qualitative.

Start with Web analytics. Pick up one of Avinash Kaushik's books or read his blog. Or Google "multiplicity strategy." (With your porn filter turned on, obviously.) A deep understanding of Web analytics is the absolute lowest bar for IT leaders who want to redefine stakeholdership to include customers.

Level up by actively admiring cultures of empathy. Follow companies that understand its value. Not the big, "innovative" ones that get all the press -- Apple, Google, Twitter -- because that's an outside-in view by journalists who pretend to understand tech, the business equivalent of admiring Brangelina. Instead, follow Intuit, IDEO, Zappos, Nordstrom, Southwest Airlines. And wait for the light bulb to turn on about the link between cultures that value empathy (and humility and compassion and collaboration) and those that demonstrate a deep commitment to customer service.

Finally, the master class, for the most daring, is to tread where IT mortals dare not: actually meeting with real customers. Your stakeholders will wince, but I guarantee that it won't be because your customers are sick of talking with your stakeholders.

This is habit four of highly empathetic people: Listen hard -- and open up.

Customer voice, which is impossible to capture without the foundational building block of deep customer empathy, is a sterile beast in large companies, usually farmed out to business consulting elves. Few if any have figured out the basics of engagement, which is what underlies everyone's nervousness.

But success isn't for the faint of heart. Customer contact introduces a complexity that can't be managed by the public relations department. And God forbid you leave the marketing folks in charge. They ooze authenticity.

How do you mature social media management to the point where you genuinely engage customers with authenticity? How do you go from tweeting at each other to establishing a dialogue when you have 10 million customers? How do you stop focusing on the loudest voice or the most familiar?

I have no clue. But whoever does it first will win.

4: Transform your org to disintermediate your stakeholders.

Dartmouth hosted a workshop in 2006 titled "The CIO as Strategic Partner." Maybe it's because I was wearing my Che Beret, but I read their output as being less about how to get a seat at the table and more about how to own the table.

The point is that you need to move past the stale idea that IT's role is to "service the business." That sounds HR-inappropriate anyway. Your new remit should be to proactively anticipate market needs. How? See section 3.

A singular focus on reducing costs? That's your Dad's IT shop. Your focus should be on revenue and profit. You need to recast IT from a cost center into a business contributor and reframe it as a competitive advantage. How? See section 3.

You need to transition from supporting operations to enabling innovations. From rigor to flexibility. From planning to agility. Take as many steps as you need to get to the epiphany, but get there.

And don't worry if it sounds revolutionary because you're exercising habit five: Inspire mass action and social change. And once the transformation takes hold ...

5: Invite the business to what is now your table.

Fight the urge to channel Samuel L. Jackson.

Your empathy muscles will be well developed by this point, so you'll understand that your stakeholders feel both threatened and oddly empowered by the credibility that you've brought to IT.

To recap, here's my heretical statement of the day: The larger the company, the less likely that IT's business partners add value. And you, regardless of where you sit in the organizational hierarchy, should feel empowered to eat their lunch.

Drive the necessary changes by exercising the final habit of highly empathetic people: Develop an ambitious imagination. So that the next time your business stakeholders tell you what they want, you can look at them in the eye and live a little. Respond with: "Well, I want a pony. And a pony for my pony."

And then do what an equal partner would do: Tell them what your company really needs.

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