From digital janitors to enablers of business
[By Dave Gale] No doubt your company’s IT department has had to do more with less recently. There’s an upside to the downturn though. Nothing focuses the corporate mind like a little cash-flow crisis.
If you come out the other side of a recession in the same state of fitness as you went in, you’re at risk of getting mauled by the leaner, hungrier and more toned cats around you who have treated the economic crunch as a super-circuit for commerce.
One area that should be having a serious work-out is IT, but is it?
A common problem with IT is that it is seldom deployed effectively. IT is often more about technology than it is about information. Technology is either sexy, clever, constantly evolving, and intriguing and distracting; or it is breaking down, getting old, and needing constant maintenance and overhauling.
Oh, yes, and it’s costly. IT is supposed to empower and enable, making us more productive. Too often, though, it hogs the limelight, irritates the CEO and does a poor job of adding to the bottom line. Most IT managers I know are driven by pain (or, more appropriately, the pursuit of relief from pain). Their lives a constant struggle to keep networks stable, systems up and users vaguely happy.
No wonder we tend to forget that IT is a means to an end. Not surprisingly, it is usually tucked away under the watchful eye of the finance department to ensure someone keeps a hawk-like eye of its costs. With some notable exceptions, financial guys are conservative — sometimes creative with the presentation of figures, but not with the strategic use of information.
So what do we have IT for? Ah, yes, to capture, store, transmit, manipulate, and present information. Information is not sexy. More often than not, it is just plain boring. For one thing, there is a deluge of it, and for another it seldom, if ever, produces insights without hard work. The more important it is, the more boring it seems, unless of course you’re an analyst. It’s not unusual then that “business” and “IT” are often at loggerheads, most often about the value that IT delivers to the business.
Have you ever wondered why the IT department so often reports to the finance director and not the marketing director? The answer is finance is a good place to put it when you see IT as a necessary evil — as a cost centre, and not as a strategic weapon.
IT departments need to up their game. They need to stop seeing themselves (and selling themselves) as the technology guys, the techies who understand how the “network” works. They need to stop seeing themselves as the fix-it brigade, responsible only for fighting fires of a digital kind. Not that we don’t need that crew — we do — but we need to look beyond the crises to competitive, productive, capacity-building.
IT departments need to shape themselves into the “information and insight enablers” of their companies. If your IT department had people who spent more time understanding the business better than the CEO and working out ways to support business better with technology, what would happen? You would get a more productive company for a start.
You could even find some competitive edge you didn’t realise you had. You’d be measuring the right things. You’d have the right information to make good decisions. You’d have the information that provides insight, that reveals the leverage points of the business. The chances are vastly improved that you’d be able to have a savvy, dynamic, customer-centric, productive, service-orientated and more profitable business.
IT can’t make that happen on its own — line functions have a lot to do with making that happen, supported by insightful IT.
So, what must be done? I believe we need to:
- Get our attitude to IT right. Whether you work in IT or you’re the CEO, IT is about information — strategic information;
- Make IT report to marketing — that ought to test our commitment to seeing IT as a strategic weapon;
- Employ a business analyst or two in the IT team, or at least ensure it has those skills;
- Focus on the data and how it can be transformed into insight;
- Learn the language of business, if you’re in IT. Ask questions about the business and the line functions. Listen, understand, gain insight;
- Use technology to work smarter, but only when it is aligned with the company’s strategic intent, and makes sales and support more productive;
- Build systems according to the perceived current and future n eeds of the business;
- Avoid being seduced and then overwhelmed by technology for technology’s sake and set about putting the “I” back into “IT”.
I’d love to hear from those who feel they have moved beyond being the “digital janitors” of the business to being the strategic enablers. Let’s hear your stories.
- Gale, formerly business development director at Storm Telecom, heads up sales and marketing at Viadata. He blogs at hittingthewire.co.za