How can IT staff aid the business strategy?

The executive team say they want to see their IT people more involved in business strategy and planning, but every time we try we...

The executive team say they want to see their IT people more involved in business strategy and planning, but every time we try we get disappointing feedback. What are the common mistakes people make in these situations, and what can we do to avoid making them?

Find out why IT has been asked to get involved

Chris Potts, director, Dominic Barrow

IT people may think, often wrongly, that they have been asked to speak about the IT implications of the strategies, or they may leave their "IT brain" outside and try to participate in the wider business discussions without enough business experience. They may have a theoretical or academic grounding, for example, an MBA, but find other people do not value this as much as they expect.

It is vital to understand why IT has been asked to get involved, and what each person is capable of bringing to the discussions. Whatever the person's role, the executives are likely to be looking for clear signals that their involvement is improving the IT team's contribution to the business as a whole. If this does not happen, the value of including IT in the wider discussions will be questioned yet again.

IT must not be too technical, narrow or tactical

Gill Williams, partner in Ernst & Young's information security practice

The key issue facing IT in the business strategy and planning context is one of credibility, which can be further distilled into three common perceptions.

First, IT over-promises and under-delivers. Strategic priorities of increased productivity, improved supply chain and accelerated product development have often been promised on the back of enterprise resource planning, customer relationship management or connectivity-based programmes but, with a high proportion of such programmes failing to deliver, this only perpetuates the under-delivery perception.

Second, IT does not "add value". This perception is systematic of a breakdown in the business/IT relationship and a potential failure to engage executives in the IT investment process. In addition, IT maintenance costs make it hard to win an IT strategic value debate.

Third, lack of IT talent. The board wants the IT team in the business planning context to be business-savvy, broad in their technology and industry knowledge, with a track record for flexibility. Too technical, too narrow and too tactical are commonly perceived IT team traits. It is important, however, not to lay all the blame at IT's door. Enterprise culture, executive sponsorship, board-level IT awareness and strategic thinking all play a part in the marriage of IT to the business.

Talk about business strategy first and technology last

Roger Marshall, Elite

IT people are often in a unique position to understand how business processes work in an organisation. Armed with that knowledge, they should be well equipped to discuss business strategy. Too often, they are not even asked to express an opinion.

Your problem is different, in that you have been asked but have failed to impress.

Could it be that you are talking IT strategy to them rather than business strategy? The logical flow should be business strategy first, then information strategy, then systems strategy and finally technology strategy.

You may have the right answer and you may be able to follow the logical flow that leads to it, but if you fail to explain the reasoning, you will be seen to be pursuing a self-interested line rather than having the company's best interests at heart.

Drop IT terms in favour of business words

Neil Roden, NCC Global

When initially involved in business strategy and planning, mistakes fall into two areas: language and landscape.

Using technical terminology and jargon such as bandwidth, web-enabled, or thin client, rather than more board-friendly terms such as efficiency, enablement or cost-effectiveness can reduce the chance of support.

IT staff tend to focus on implementing or introducing technological advances and monitoring staff and systems. These tactical functions may provide improvements for IT staff and IT operations, but they are often not aligned to delivering business improvement or strategic enablement. It is important there is a strong understanding of organisational aims within IT, as only then will they be able to investigate where increased efficiencies, operational improvements, process streamlining and system-led improvements can be derived.

An established strategy or plan will deliver business improvement supported by a robust business case and demonstrable gains. It is important to separate potential from actual measurable benefits, especially if they place an increased reliance on IT systems.

If the business case counters all concerns, clearly illustrates where benefits will be realised and mitigates the potential risks involved in the project, there can be little reason for rejection.

Find out what is being expected of you first

Sharm Manwani, Henley Management College

The question is, what role are you being asked to perform and what competencies will be needed?

One role is the expert who identifies IT opportunities. For example, what are the latest wireless technologies available, and in what areas might they be applicable? IT will generally have access to the latest research and is in a position to set up prototypes. The common mistake is to get more excited about the technology than the business opportunity.

A second role is that of portfolio systems analyst. IT can use its skills to clarify the business requests, identify the gaps in existing systems and propose high-level IT solutions. This can be a useful support in the consolidation stage of strategic planning but only if IT does not try to reach for a level of detail that is inappropriate.

Increasingly, IT people are demonstrating an understanding of business processes and models. These hybrids often have a background in more than one function, possibly supplemented by an MBA. They should be comfortable with a horizontal business process view, rather than a vertical functional perspective. Without the right level of business skills, it is unlikely this will be an accepted role for IT people.

Decide carefully who will speak for IT to the board

Chris Edwards, Cranfield School of Management

Although it is positive that your management team wants IT to be involved in business strategy, how will this be achieved? This could range from occasional presentations by IT to the strategy team to presentations to the team assessing all business strategy issues.

The former usually suffers from lack of understanding of the real business issues, as IT is not fully involved. The presentations often focus upon technical issues or examples from industries that the management team cannot relate to - all of which may be different from management's expectations. You should determine precisely what the expectations are and do not accept generalities.

The latter may suffer if the wrong individuals are attending the meetings. Therefore, selecting and/or developing the appropriate individual is critical to success. Would this be the sort of individual to benefit from an MBA course?

Secondment is the only way for IT to get real experience

Robin Laidlaw, president, CW500 Club

Secondment is the only real way for IT personnel to get business experience and this has to be carefully planned. I believe that at IT director level, it is too late. There is a real problem in finding a secondment position of such seniority that does not in itself demand prior business experience and probably a qualification to hold the job, for example, chartered accountant.

For IT directors who have not had the benefit of business experience, it is probably best to seek a chief technology officer position as the corresponding chief information officer will have the interfaces with the business to handle and the CTO can concentrate on running an efficient and effective operation meeting defined business needs.

It is easier (but still very hard) to move from the business side to the IT side at senior level. It is easier for IT people to get business experience at more junior levels. Select your potential high flyers when they are young and lay out a plan for them to follow.

The experts

Computer Weekly has put together a panel of experts. You can draw on their specialist knowledge to solve a problem. E-mail your questions (or your own solutions to this or the next question) to [email protected]

NCC Group

Deloitte &Touche

Cranfield School of Management

Computer Weekly 500 Club

Henley Management College

British Computer Society


The Infrastructure Forum

Dominic Barrow

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