There are significant gaps in how IT professionals and business leaders view issues such as aligning tech with business goals. Experts share some thoughts on how to close the gaps.
A recent study reveals that IT chiefs and business leaders often have conflicting goals on key technology issues.
According to the 2018 SIM IT Trends Study, organization and IT leaders both agree that security/cybersecurity and privacy are today's top IT management issues. Yet in several other important IT areas there's a wide divergence of views between organizations and IT professionals.
IT's alignment with business is one key area where organization and IT leaders don't quite see eye to eye. According to the 1,200-respondent survey by the Society for Information Management (SIM), IT-business alignment ranks as organization leaders' second most important worry, but it's only the fourth-most pressing problem of IT bosses.
An even starker divide appears on the issue of talent/skill shortage/retention, which IT chiefs cited as their number three worry. Organization leaders pegged the problem at number 17, just above business continuity, which IT leaders identified as their eighth most important concern.
Although IT and business leaders have long crossed swords on the importance of various technology-related issues, such disputes become more critical -- and potentially destructive -- in an era when tech plays such a fundamental role in business success. "The goal of the enterprise is to serve its clients and customers," said Alan Zucker, founding principal of Project Management Essentials, a project management consulting firm based in Arlington, Va. "All components and divisions of the enterprise should be united, supporting the strategic goals of the whole company."
More now than ever, technology is central to a company’s ability to compete, so alignment of IT and strategic business objectives is crucial, observed Paul Lombardo, CEO of Ness Digital Engineering, a Teaneck, N.J., company that provides custom software product engineering services "Therefore, finding the alignment between what may seem like an IT priority and the wider business objectives is vital," he observed.
The enterprise digital divide The roles and responsibilities of business and IT leaders are quite different, but both should have the same endpoint in mind. "Business leaders need technology to support new organizational goals," said Robert Douglas, president of PlanetMagpie, an IT consultancy located in Fremont, Calif. IT chiefs, on the other hand, have security and support goals that they must mesh with business goals. "All these needs must come together into a solution that best fits the organization as a whole," Douglas stated.
Today’s business leaders face a new reality of digital disruption; a universe where one disruptor can wipe out a traditional business model within months, noted Kevin Niblock, president and COO of Reston, Va.-based Software AG North America, a unit of German enterprise software company Software AG. "If the business side is still thinking in silos, or believes that it knows better than the IT department does, then all is lost," he said.
The best way for an IT leader to appeal to business leaders is by linking IT investments to business objectives, Lombardo recommended. "If you can, show that an IT investment saves money downstream for investment elsewhere, improves agility and speeds or supports business transformation objectives," he advised. If you can’t link an IT investment to wider business objectives, ask why it’s on the table in the first place."
Present likely benefits, risks and any potential ROI in a unified business case scenario, advised Warren Perlman, CIO of Ceridian, a Minneapolis-based provider of human resources software and services. "You can change minds by presenting the facts -- real facts with real implications -- not doom and gloom," he said. "Business leaders need to properly understand the costs of not moving forward."
Perlman also advised presenting specific examples of other enterprises that had similar priorities and were burned by not taking the action. "Ensure that the proposal is presented by a leader who has sales experience and persuasiveness to ensure a less technical message with the correct focus on facts," he suggested. "A technology leader who is too technical may lose the audience in bits and bytes and also lose the opportunity."
IT departments typically possess deep technical knowledge, capable of spotting IT-related strategies that business leaders might miss. "To advance their ideas through sometimes tricky opposition, they need a person who has a multifaceted approach to business," Software AG's Niblock said. "It takes a person with one eye on the many new IT technologies that are constantly emerging and one eye on how the almost infinite combination of these technologies can digitally transform a business."
Leo Farias, co-founder of Concepta, an Orlando-Fla.-based custom software developer, noted that IT leaders need to broaden their scope. "No longer can they limit their interest to technology; they need to understand how that technology will impact existing workflows and what needs are going unmet," he said. "[They] should contribute to discussions on marketing, security, data strategy, and any other area of operations where technology can increase efficiency."
A meeting of minds Conflicts between IT and the organization should never be viewed as zero-sum games. "It's not a matter of IT losing and the business winning," Zucker observed. "IT and business should be working together -- collaboratively -- to promote strategic outcomes for the organization."
Keith Collins, executive vice president and CIO of business intelligence and predictive analytics software provider SAS, offered another approach. "You’re not looking for compromises, you’re looking for the best answer to drive the business," he explained. "Encourage disagreement, but expect commitment to the decision."
Listen, collaborate and keep an open mind, advised Ellen Rubin, CEO and co-founder of ClearSky Data, a Boston-based company that offers enterprise storage as a hybrid cloud service. "The best teams I've worked with have figured out how to clearly define objectives while also constantly collaborating on the best possible solutions," she noted. "It's expected there will be differing opinions, and there will be a need to challenge ideas on all IT teams, but listening and collaborating helps establish opportunities for compromise."
The best method for reaching effective compromises is demonstrating an understanding of the organization's goals and describing how a new technology, method or approach will help achieve those objectives, said Vic Bhagat, CIO of Verizon Enterprise Solutions, the Verizon Communications unit, based in Basking Ridge, N.J., that provides services and products to business and government clients. Metrics analysis can provide helpful insights and guidance. "If your performance and the performance of your team is measured on things that encourage tactical behavior, that is what a business will receive," Bhagat noted.
Packaging several IT initiatives into a large bundle can help lead to an effective compromise, much in the way Congress attaches pet projects to legislation to get the votes necessary to pass the main measure. "Let’s say an IT vendor consolidation exercise is expected to save '$X millions' over the next three years," Lombardo said. "How those savings will be used can be part of the deal: some for overdue IT investment, some for digital transformation, some for new product development and so on."
When hammering out a compromise, both sides should always keep the customer in mind. "Remind everyone, including yourself, that if the customer is at risk due to the company's IT policies, you have a duty to rectify this," Douglas said. "This focus helps everyone come to the table and hammer out the best solution."
Push harder or pull back? How hard should an IT leader push a priority before risking damage to his or her reputation or, quite possibly, employment? If the priorities are essential to the organization's success and safety, an IT leader needs to push until they are sure that the organization fully understands the risks and benefits associated with what they’re trying to change," Bhagat advised.
IT chiefs can’t just sit back and wait for other business leaders to push ahead promising tech-related ideas. "CIOs must innovate proactively and put the right technology in place to drive their organization forward and build a strong customer relationship," Bhagat said. "If a CIO fails to do that, then their company misses valuable opportunities."
IT priorities that are closely aligned to business objectives are generally well positioned to win widespread organization support, Rubin observed. "IT leaders who work this way feel comfortable pushing their priorities with high confidence," she said.
Never give up When proposing an idea or change that promises to benefit the organization and its customers, an IT leader should never even consider the possibility of accepting defeat. "Take the long-term view," Collins suggested. "If you are right and passionate about your idea/position, the opportunity will come again."
Virtually every IT leader possesses the ability to accelerate business goals, but it requires courage to propose ideas, Bhagat said. "It will likely make others within the business uncomfortable, but CIOs that have the courage and vision to work toward making a real business impact will be far more valued than those continuing to hit targets that ultimately add little to a business."
Meek IT leaders who resist expanding their responsibilities into business areas can find themselves pushed toward the IT margins while newcomers with marketing or strategy experience are given oversight of digital projects, Farias noted. "A true IT leader needs more than strategic knowledge to succeed."
John Edwards is a veteran business technology journalist. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and numerous business and technology publications, including Computerworld, CFO Magazine, IBM Data Management Magazine, RFID Journal, and Electronic ... View Full Bio
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A New World of IT Management in 2019This IT Trend Report highlights how several years of developments in technology and business strategies have led to a subsequent wave of changes in the role of an IT organization, how CIOs and other IT leaders approach management, in addition to the jobs of many IT professionals up and down the org chart.