IT staff get bogged down in business support, but their ideas can be money spinners and should be encouraged, writes Roisin Woolnough.
IT professionals have it drummed into them daily: you are there to serve the business. Above all else, remember user requirements and provide the necessary support. But Robina Chatham, formerly an IT director and now visiting fellow at the Cranfield School of Management, thinks the situation has gone too far and, as a result, IT departments have forgotten how to innovate.
"Business support is part of an IT person's job and is always going to be because IT is a bit of a service function," she says. "But IT departments should also want to be more than that. They should want to be a strategic part of business, but not many departments have taken up the challenge."
When Chatham carried out research into how IT is viewed by other business departments recently, she discovered that in the 400-500 companies she surveyed, no one perceived IT to be a strategic function.
Chatham thinks it is high time IT professionals proved them wrong. After all, when applied creatively and correctly, IT can make business a lot of money.
"When American Airlines introduced its online reservation system Sabre a few years ago, the idea was for it to be just for the airline," says Chatham. "Then someone had the idea of offering it to other airlines, which it did. Because it was the first company to do this, American Airlines made more profit through IT services in that first year than through flying aircraft. That was an innovative use of IT and it was an IT person who came up with the idea."
It is easy to get bogged down with the daily grind of the job, particularly if the company attitude is that you are there to serve the business, not to come up with ideas. While employers claim that they like employees to be creative and explore new ways of working, the reality is that they want the job done as quickly and cheaply as possible.
New ideas invariably disrupt accepted ways of working and require time, resources and investment to implement. Even if the idea will save a company money in the long term, you still have to persuade bosses to cough up the money and resources in the first place. "Companies always say they want people who come up with new ideas, but most organisational structures don't work that way," says Annette Pearson, technical consultant at risk management software house KWI. "You have to work hard to push through barriers if you want to do something new."
This view is shared by Michael Friel, senior developer at Starmark Investments. "In two of the organisations I have worked for, it has been made clear by management what you are," he says. "You are there to serve the business." When he has worked for software houses, though, things have been different. "You have more licence to be innovative in software companies. You still always have business requirements, but within those realms there is still plenty of scope to be innovative."
When a client comes to Friel with a specification, he always looks beyond their written requirements, trying to work out how he can add value to the project and anticipate future needs.
Friel's most cherished piece of work was the creation of a "random question bank functionality" when working on a project for Absolutely Training. He was technical lead and, with his team, realised that the client's requirement had far greater potential than they had originally thought. The end result was a product that is now awaiting a patent. "It was the first time I had a licence to do something really new," says Friel. "That was a fantastic experience, but unfortunately, opportunities like that are few and far between."
Pearson believes IT professionals harbouring ambitions to move into a strategic role need to really push for it. Get yourself on the business-critical projects; talk to people from other departments about what their issues are, she says. It is only when you fully understand the business needs that you can come up with the ideas that make a difference.
"One of the biggest ways to add value to a company is to take a marketing focus on what your market could do," says Pearson. "You would be surprised by the number of initiatives that could happen, if you try."
A few years ago, she came up with the idea of implementing a small-scale customer relationship management system at her company. Her employers knew they needed a CRM package and had invested a lot of time searching for the perfect solution. "Marketing opportunities were being missed because we hadn't documented our customers enough," says Pearson. "They didn't want to do it in smaller steps, like I was suggesting, but eventually, after a lot of work, I got it done.
"I had to set it all up and kickstart the whole process, constantly pointing out the value added." The plan is still to replace it with a more snazzy system - when the right one is found - but in the meantime, the company has benefited from improved marketing opportunities.
It can be a demoralising and demotivating experience when you approach your manager with what you know is a brilliant idea but it is turned down. However, Pearson and Chatham say that to make ideas happen, you have to persevere.
"If you have been knocked down, keep at it," says Chatham. "You need to learn how to read people and present your ideas in their language. That makes it more likely that they will buy into your idea. But it takes a lot of stamina."