IT makeover: Creating an 'attraction strategy'

When the CEO asks the CIO to find a way to attract the business units to the IT function, with the ultimate goal of increasing revenue, the CIO realizes his staff is going to need some new skills

The CEO who hired me as CIO to help modernize the IT function of a Fortune 500 enterprise was a visionary.

At least I thought so, and you probably would too, because he showed unusual perception about the value of IT. He didn't just want me to fix broken and outdated financial and operational support systems and to eliminate redundant IT spending that was the legacy of multiple acquisitions. He knew that bringing IT up to date was both overdue and essential to reduce IT cost, improve service, and favorably position the enterprise for additional IT-based products and services in the future.

And he hung in there even as the IT update inevitably took longer than we'd expected. But after three years, IT unit costs were down, customer service had dramatically improved, and business units were becoming interested in using IT's services a bit more to improve their productivity.

It was at that point that I saw how visionary the CEO was. Frankly, I wish I could take credit for his challenge to me. Rather than being satisfied with the improvements we had already made in the IT function, he wanted us to build on our better relations with the business units by creating an "attraction strategy." We would need to attract the business units to the IT function by demonstrating to them that we could help them improve both their business and strategic performance.

He saw IT as the best investment the enterprise could make in its quest to improve in price/performance year after year -- but only if IT was focused on avoiding cost, improving service, and increasing revenue. He was able to erase any doubts in my mind with this impeccable logic: "Won't your IT unit and service cost to business units continue to decrease if the demand for your IT services continues to increase? Won't that make our overall IT asset management program more productive?"

It helped too that his last words to me at that meeting were, "Just tell me what you need."

BRM from scratch

This all happened several years ago. Nowadays, of course, a CIO who was told to create an attraction strategy would be able to find all sorts of information about business relationship management (BRM). There is an ever-growing body of easily accessible and practical guidance about the effectiveness of a BRM function, the special talents that business relationship managers must have and keep up with, how BRMs create focus and momentum around exploiting the power of IT to improve strategic performance, and even how one can be certified as a BRM professional. Back then, though, we had to start from scratch.

But I think our experience of finding our way with so little guidance available holds valuable lessons still.

Not surprisingly, when I met with my direct reports to discuss the challenge the CEO had issued, we managed to see all kinds of snags: We weren't set up to operate like a business, we didn't have marketing or special communications resources, our staff was purpose-built around technical capabilities, we weren't deeply involved in our clients' businesses, and so on.

But a direct appeal from the CEO can't be simply shunted aside, so we kept meeting to talk about it. For a while, we just couldn't get past the difficulties that we had identified, but then someone on the team was able to turn us around by noting that knowing all of the weaknesses we were bringing to this task was actually a strength. Because we had identified them so well, we should be able to figure out what we needed to do and what resources we would require to remedy each one.

We also came to accept the following as the core principle underlying our undertaking: If the IT function was going to attract more demand, then everyone in it needed to view our business units as real customers who had a choice regarding where they obtained IT services. And if we were not directly focused on quality performance and meeting our customers' expectations, we would have no basis at all for them to seek additional IT services or assistance.

New skills

A proposal began to take shape. We saw that we could easily scale our "plan, build and run" services to accommodate growth in demand, but it was clear that we would need significant additional resources for a new kind of client relationship management function with a different skill set than the rest of the IT function.

The new skills we were in need of were ones that could:

* Ensure that the services provided by IT remained directly responsive to the needs of every business unit it serves.

* Become active contributors to performance-improvement initiatives in the business units, and be jointly accountable for the results.

* Build a strategy to advance the priorities of both the business units and IT and thereby manage mutual expectations.

* Facilitate the provisioning of IT services, and ensure that all services remain the best means to meet business partners' needs as situations change.

* Provide all business unit staff with a directory to IT services that is always current, accessible, and readily apparent.

* Identify opportunities for the continuous improvement of IT service quality, needed adjustments to existing IT services, and all-new IT services as they become needed, and jointly assess options to arrange for and provide those services.

* Periodically give informational updates to business units regarding the advantages, features, and benefits of existing IT services and any emerging technologies, tools, or techniques that might benefit them.

In other words, if we were to create demand, we needed to add to our IT staff people who could be marketers, two-way communicators, voices of the customer, involved partners, trusted account managers, and advocates for shared services, all rolled up in one.

These new people would be the foundation of a new IT function, which we wound up calling the Business Systems Group (BSG). But the entire IT staff, bolstered by some consultative training, would play a part. Built around basic client relationship management (CRM) principles, the BSG could be the impetus, we felt, to move the IT organization toward a commercialized culture.

But how would we know if we had achieved that objective? We were aware that the CEO would want us to be able to tell him how we could be sure that our attraction strategy was working and whether or not this new BSG resource was accomplishing its mission.

What is success?

One part of the question of how to measure success turned out to have a simple answer, once we returned to the CEO's original request. We realized that our attraction strategy (by now we were starting to like the term) would be working if demand for our services was growing, and especially if that growth was primarily in IT's plan and build activities (in view of the CEO's emphasis on new uses of IT for improving business and strategic performance).

But measuring the BSG's success in achieving the mission we'd set for it was harder. In the end, we came up with what we considered a pretty good guess. We would quantify the BSG function's effectiveness by measuring:

* The useful knowledge it has (from a marketing viewpoint) about the business units its IT function serves.

* How the IT function is perceived by the business units it serves.

* How much the demand increases for IT services.

* The extent to which the IT function objectively introduces beneficial change throughout the business units it serves and the entire enterprise.

Expanding our skills

Case closed? Not really. Before approving the investment needed for the BSG (what these days we would call the BRM function), the CEO made the point that we would need to work especially hard to find the right talent and then make sure that the new skill set held by those people remained current. If we didn't, he cautioned, our new function could be seen as an additional layer of IT cost and even bureaucracy.

He was right, as usual.

As it turned out, though, over half of the BSG unit was staffed from the ranks of the existing IT team. Because those staffers needed to be proficient in interpersonal communications, they were trained in consultative skills, and the entire BSG team had to be kept up to date on critical CRM practices (all we had at the time).

Even better news was that our benchmarking processes and business unit assessments made it clear that our services were priced below the alternatives and that our approach to providing them responsively was considered anything but bureaucratic.

A happy CEO

In the BSG's first year, demand for IT's services grew only at the same rate as before, as the BSG team became increasingly involved with the business units. At first, the BSG introduced a few small changes to business processes and built a few new (non-administrative) applications. Over the next four years, however, proportionally more IT initiatives were built to improve service and increase revenue (not just to avoid cost), and demand began to rise at a slightly higher rate. Real success came when the BSG, by virtue of its involvement with the business units, realized the power of the Internet in making our existing printed information product lines also available for sale in digital form there (I told you this was many years ago!). That initiative alone brought in significant new revenue at very little additional cost. The CEO was so pleased; the results of his IT attraction strategy became a key theme within the company's annual report to stockholders.

As the CIO, I was most pleased with the increased sense of pride among the IT team as they came to understand more directly how what they did benefited both their clients and the enterprise. And they thoroughly enjoyed the chance to be creative as part of their charge to introduce beneficial change.

NB: To learn more about the benefits of the BRM discipline, the best places to start include: ITIL Service Management Strategy, 2011 Version (search using this term) and especially the Business Relationship Management Institute.

Al Kuebler was CIO for AT&T Universal Card, Los Angeles County, Alcatel and McGraw-Hill and director of process engineering at Citicorp. He also directed the consulting activity for CSC Europe. He is now a consultant on general management and IT issues. He is the author of the book Technical Impact: Making Your Information Technology Effective, and Keeping It That Way, from which this article was adapted. He can be reached at ak@technicalimpact.com.

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