The Value of IT Steering Committees

It’s an old concept, but the idea of having a multi-disciplinary steering committee for IT can still deliver dividends. Here’s how.

Mary E. Shacklett, President of Transworld Data

June 5, 2024

5 Min Read
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For CIOs and IT staff, the steering committee concept has been around since the 1960s. Then as now, it was born out of a belief that still exists today: that users, executive management and IT should have shared responsibility and decision-making power over project directions and funding, and then the committee monitors them through completion. 

A steering committee should in theory be an equally shared responsibility. Unfortunately, the CIO often finds themselves doing a great deal of the steering, because the centerpiece of most projects is the technology that will run them. 

Here are some examples of where that occurs: 

The new medical records system that a hospital organized a steering committee for was comprised of board members and the heads of medical departments like cardiology and surgery, finance, regulatory and IT. The project was then run and implemented by IT. 

A new enterprise resource planning (ERP) system project that purchasing and manufacturing wanted was then turned over to IT to run and execute with oversight from a steering committee of purchasing, finance, manufacturing, IT and the vendor. 

I know many CIOs who get frustrated with steering committees. In their eyes, steering committees just turn into IT projects when the other stakeholders skip meetings and later take issue with the project. These CIOs would just as soon do away with steering committees. They see them as falling into the lap of IT, so why have all the extra meetings when you can’t count on everyone showing up? 

Related:How to Set Realistic IT Project Deadlines

However, here is another way to think about steering committees: If the steering committee ball is ultimately going to fall into your lap, you, as CIO, have the leverage to do something about optimizing its value.  

Here’s how: 

1. Don’t confuse steering committee meetings with project meetings.  

Many IT project meetings today are interdisciplinary, and some even include code development that is shared between end users and IT. But that isn’t the same thing as a steering committee. 

The purpose of a project meeting is to ensure that project tasks are properly defined, assigned and completed on time, and that each project ultimately delivers the business value that was intended. 

In contrast, steering committees are strategic. Their primary goal is to define and assure that projects are in total alignment with the business. If deviations begin to appear between project and business direction, the steering committee is expected to find ways to correct the course.  

Because a steering committee can operate at a very high strategic business level, it might include board members as well as senior executives and some mid-level managers. Steering committees look at the outside market, how the business is performing financially and operationally, how well the company is meeting government and regulatory requirements, etc. 

Related:The Recipe for a Successful AI Project

Because the steering committee’s focus is highly strategic, CIOs can use the steering committee to best advantage by asking for regular committee assessments as to how well the IT projects that are being developed align with business goals and delivering value. The steering committee can be an early “business value” checkpoint for IT work, and its members can also be very supportive for projects that are already in progress and under their auspices. 

2. Run steering committee meetings strategically.  

Whether it is the CIO or another committee member chairing the steering committee, the agenda for each meeting should be clearly defined and delivered in advance. It should have a strategic focus. 

During the meeting, IT will be expected to report on project progress, but unless there is a particular issue complicating the project, it should be discussed at a top summary level. Instead of detailing all of the integration and development work that is going on from an IT standpoint, the CIO is better served by discussing the new business capabilities that are being built, how they will align with strategic business direction, and when the company can expect to see them. 

Related:Is It Time for User Accountability?

3. Know your players. 

I’ve never participated in a steering committee where there wasn’t at least one committee member who was difficult to get along with. On the other hand, I’ve also been on steering committees with enthusiastic team players who would do anything to make things work. 

Since so much steering committee work falls on IT, the CIO should make it his or her business to get to know each steering committee member so he/she can find the best ways to communicate and exchange ideas with each member. Making an effort in interpersonal relations can lead to seamless meetings, with everyone landing on the same page.  

4. Keep IT staff informed of steering committee meetings. 

IT staff members do better on projects when they know how the projects will contribute to the company strategically because this gives a project a business purpose. Most importantly, sharing key points from steering committee meetings with staff keeps dialogues open and transparent among the CIO, upper management, and staff. 

5. Demand accountability.  

There are steering committee situations where one or two key stakeholders regularly miss meetings and fail to do their share. These are often the first people to complain when a project that the committee oversees encounters a delay or misses a deadline. 
Avoid this. If early on, you can see that the required participants aren’t going to attend meetings regularly or accept their roles and responsibilities, either recommend a delay or suggest that the committee idea be reconsidered. 

About the Author(s)

Mary E. Shacklett

President of Transworld Data

Mary E. Shacklett is an internationally recognized technology commentator and President of Transworld Data, a marketing and technology services firm. Prior to founding her own company, she was Vice President of Product Research and Software Development for Summit Information Systems, a computer software company; and Vice President of Strategic Planning and Technology at FSI International, a multinational manufacturer in the semiconductor industry.

Mary has business experience in Europe, Japan, and the Pacific Rim. She has a BS degree from the University of Wisconsin and an MA from the University of Southern California, where she taught for several years. She is listed in Who's Who Worldwide and in Who's Who in the Computer Industry.

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