Align IT With Customers, Or Support And Enable? The Woodshed Awaits. - InformationWeek

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IT Leadership // CIO Insights & Innovation
Commentary
11/17/2008
05:36 PM
Bob Evans
Bob Evans
Commentary
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Align IT With Customers, Or Support And Enable? The Woodshed Awaits.

My recent post calling for overthrowing the old bromide "align IT with the business" and replacing it with "align IT with your customers" has sparked a lively debate. One commenter, signing is as "Insulted CIO Guest," takes me to the woodshed and feels a pretty good thrashing is in order. Since it's my tail on the line, I'm hard

My recent post calling for overthrowing the old bromide "align IT with the business" and replacing it with "align IT with your customers" has sparked a lively debate. One commenter, signing is as "Insulted CIO Guest," takes me to the woodshed and feels a pretty good thrashing is in order. Since it's my tail on the line, I'm hardly an objective voice and so must turn to you, dear readers, for a ruling on whether the whip should come down.The primary argument "Insulted CIO" makes is that IT departments need to stay in the background, reacting to what they're told by LOBs:

"I hate to burst yet another bubble, but in case you have not noticed, and even if it doesn't think of itself in that way, the IT organization has one mission: provide IT services that support and enable the business without forcing the LOB to assume the risks associated with delivering and managing those services. The business side, not IT, has responsibility -- through P&L -- for creating and maintaining the customer relationship. IT should be providing the services the business needs to improve and enhance its CRM; IT should not be in the business of trying to do CRM directly (which you seem to advocate)."

The model proposed here by Insulted CIO worked really well throughout the '80s and '90s and even into the early part of this decade: linear processes, predictable markets, low-churn customer bases, and rosters of products and services that just didn't change too much too quickly. But in today's business environment, where companies in every industry are trying desperately to move as rapidly as their customers -- and customer preferences -- are moving, is it still practical to relegate IT to a back-bench role where it's highest calling is to "support and enable"? Sure, that's a necessary function, but is it enough? Is it an approach that drives business value and customer value? Or is it an approach that clamps a giant flashing neon light above the IT department saying "COST CENTER"? And if that's how a business-technology organization presents itself, then should anyone be surprised when the CEO relegates oversight of it to the CFO or an operations manager with a prescription to (a) cut costs, (b) don't make any mistakes, and (c) cut more costs?

One other comment from Insulted CIO needs to be put forward for this debate, because it underscores the dramatically different approaches that companies are evaluating today -- and perhaps yours is among them:

"IT's first customer should always be the business. And business' first customer should always be the paying customer."

Insulted CIO strikes me as a very thoughtful, intelligent, and accomplished professional. But in spite of that, I just can't help thinking that this approach laid out by Insulted CIO is destined for disaster because it relegates the technology organization, ultimately, to being a bunch of hard-working and dedicated and smart people who are nevertheless increasingly irrelevant and generally expendable because they have been cut off from the real world -- the "paying customer." In today's world when all customers, whether businesses or individual consumers, are using technology more aggressively than ever before in every single facet of their lives -- when every business process is interlaced with technology, when companies are eagerly inviting customers and partners and suppliers and prospects into and onto their networks -- that old approach will not work. It will fail because many of the key enablers of innovation and customer intimacy -- those dedicated, hands-on, business-technology professionals -- will have been told that their job isn't to innovate or help engage with customers but rather to keep their heads down and their mouths shut and focus on "support and enable." And when that's the case, the real target of the insult isn't the CIO -- it's the business-technology teams who have the innate ability and desire to contribute in new ways, but are being told, 'thanks, but no thanks.'

So it's your call: Time for me to head for the woodshed?

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