Empowering business managers to make IT decisions

Many business managers feel at a loss when it comes to making IT decisions. Here are some strategies you can employ to make them...

Many business managers feel at a loss when it comes to making IT decisions. Here are some strategies you can employ to make them feel more confident

Empowering Managers

The majority of our business managers lack confidence when asked to make IT decisions. Also, some feel excluded from IT decisions, and disempowered by the way IT is managed. What can I do to achieve greater involvement in IT decision-making on the part of the business at large, and still retain central control?

The Solution

Don't forget - IT is a business tool

Gerard Burke, Lecturer in information systems
Cranfield School of Management

The simple answer is to stop asking them to make IT decisions and start asking them to make decisions about business improvements enabled by IT. While this sounds simplistic, in reality it requires a fundamental change in mindset for most business managers and many IT professionals.

IT is nothing more than a tool for delivering business change, albeit a very powerful one. And yet, typically, business managers are far less confident in making decisions about exploiting IT than they are about exploiting other tools for business change like customer care and mergers and acquisitions.

Lacking expertise and experience in how to build hardware and software, business managers feel that they have little to contribute and so tend to withdraw, leaving IT specialists to get on with it. IT specialists then deliver the IT systems, but cannot implement the necessary business changes in order to deliver the intended business improvement - only business managers can do that. Hence little, if any, business improvement is achieved. Repeated experiences like this lead to business managers becoming frustrated with IT and even less likely to get involved.

We have lost sight of the rightful position of IT - as a potentially very powerful lever for business improvement - and allowed it to become separated and an end in itself. Successful exploitation of IT is all about good management, not just good technology.

As a result of such a shift in assumptions, business managers can regain their rightful place in driving forward business improvement and feel confident again in the value of their own expertise and skill. IT professionals for their part, need to accept that they have to let go of some long-held beliefs and relinquish some control in order to demonstrate real value to the organisation in the eyes of their business manager colleagues.

Put IT at the forefront of solving businesses' problems

Mike Portlock
Impact

One of the most difficult tasks associated with the effective use of IT in business is ensuring the alignment of IT with the goals and purposes of the business. How often do we hear executives complaining that although their IT systems work well enough "they are not helping with the main problems which we face"? Measuring or assessing this alignment in objective terms is extremely difficult, but experience shows that if most people in the business believe that the systems are well aligned then they are.

This statement points the way towards achieving the necessary "buy-in". There is no short-term magic answer. The only way forward is by intensive and effective communication between IT and the business at all levels. This means not only a high level "steering committee" meeting two or three times a year to resolve strategic issues and broad priorities, but other joint groups meeting regularly at middle manager level. Firstly, to approve and review projects and manage joint resources and, secondly, at operational level to feed back difficulties and requirements and point out where more training is needed and also to review projects which will affect their way of working.

Many companies carry out one-off strategic plans for IT - perhaps involving consultants at huge expense - and then effectively sever contact with IT. Inevitably, after a few months the alienation referred to in the question is found to exist and the validity of the plan has disappeared. The moral has to be to find ways to get together with the business - and keep getting together.

Achieve convergence of IT withyour business goals

Neil Yeoman
Arthur Andersen

Your problem is one of uncertainty fuelled by lack of knowledge. Many IT managers act as magicians, only occasionally willing to let the unsuspecting business manager into the tricks of their trade. In the long-term, clarity comes from understanding three transitions that are currently beginning to occur.

The first transition is for the IT director moving from IT as an enabler of business to IT being at the forefront of strategy and its implementation. The change involves a more commercial viewpoint and greater communication in the organisation. He or she will be the ambassador of technology.

The second transition is for the corporation as a whole and involves turning IT on its side into a group of specialists operating side-by-side with the business manager. This change sponsors much greater understanding in the business.

The third transition is for the business manager. Now that IT has become so much a part of the strategic possibilities for most businesses, he or she must become more aware, at a strategic and operational level, of the implications of IT. The manager must understand the things that IT can do, but not necessarily how IT will do it. Finally, the manager needs to be able to capture the imagination of the CEO with his grasp of the possibilities of e-business.

In the short-term there are some key actions in these areas of communication, knowledge and confidence. Look again at IT strategy. Is it properly documented? Is it focused on the business objectives of the company? How understandable is it to business managers? If it isn't, improve it.

Think about how widely ITstrategy has been communicated to business managers. Do those who need to make decisions about IT have a good understanding? Are they bought in? Don't circulate it. Communicate it one-on-one or in groups.

Assess where you want the boundaries between business and IT to be. What are they free to do? When do they need your approval? Typically this is expressed as policy, approved by senior management and understood by all. It will force you to define the areas where you must have control.

Empower business managers to successfully utilise IT

John Perkins, Director of membership
National Computing Centre

Like the pantomime horse, it is probably worth starting at the back-end of this question. You need to empower your business colleagues to work with you within an agreed framework of industry and professional best practices. This will ensure the most "successful exploitation of IT" for your business.

Given your in-depth knowledge of current and future technology, you will need to take the lead in managing that process and setting the standards and the infrastructure for the rest of the business. If you want buy-in from colleagues you need to take that leadership role to engender the confidence that allows them to make their particular and individually-valued contribution to the team strategy.

There are a variety of empowerment and confidence-building mechanisms available to you depending upon the culture of the company and its available technology. Regular contact and effective communication is a good way to start - listen and talk to people in their own language, enable them to understand the business issues through workshops or the organisation's intranet. External views from respected independent organisations fed into the system will add to your credibility and help to build confidence.

You want commitment as well as involvement from others. But if colleagues feel uneasy and unable to contribute and you don't have their confidence then you surely will lose control. Just ask any politician.

Integrate IT at board level but retain "ownership" of your systems

David Taylor
Certus

Your business peers need never make an IT decision, nor have to understand anything about IT.

The days when IT appeared under item four on the boardroom agenda are gone forever. IT runs throughout every organisation, at every level. It must be represented on the board and should become totally integrated at that level. The new start-ups that are the biggest threat to the large corporates do not sit around worrying whether a decision is an IT or HR or business decision. Instead, every step forward is based on the needs of the whole organisation.

The business peers in your company sound as though they want to avoid issues such as project ownership, total cost of ownership and delivery of benefits. Those that take IT into their own areas - fine. You set the standards and they will abide by them. The key to central control is retaining ownership of your infrastructure, intranet and all communications.

Finally, never let anyone tell you that you are not a businessman. You are, and the impact of new technology will mean that you not only have control of IT, but also HR, finance and most other areas in your organisation.

Next week

I have discovered that the manager I tasked to organise our e-commerce drive has strong links with the firm of consultants we appointed to help us - to the extent that the selection process may have been seriously compromised. The manager is a critical member of my management team, and the consultants appear to be doing a good job. I am tasked with being a profit generator, and cannot simply dump the project. What paths are open to me?

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This was last published in January 2000

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