Advice: Developing Your Business Acumen

In today's market, expectations for IT professionals are changing. We are at a point where it is assumed that IT professionals possess a solid technical foundation. What is different is that corporate leadership is expecting everyone, IT employees included, to develop his business acumen as well, to gain a better understanding of the market forces affecting the organization. This requires IT professionals to develop a business-minded approach to technology projects, in order to drive credibility with their internal customers.

Unlimited IT budgets are gone. Instead, there has to be value added. In fact, to better leverage technology, IT people are being integrated into the entire company and are expected to learn the business.

Fortunately for midlevel IT professionals, the corporate culture is also changing to support this shift. Generally speaking, executive leadership understands the importance of technology and will likely support efforts by the IT group to interface with other business units. In fact, in terms of new hires, what we are seeing in all markets is that corporate leadership is actively looking for IT professionals that already possess broader business experience.

Midlevel IT staffers are not the only ones affected, however. The trend started with the need for technology leadership to become business thought leaders as well as technology leaders. As CIOs start interfacing with other business units, so must their staffs. Essentially, if you are going to have a cohesive team, you need everyone on board and in sync.

The Impact of Outsourcing

Outsourcing has accelerated this shift. With outsourcing, organizations are generally left with a core group of IT professionals who do not have direct control over all of the technology functions. Instead, the role of IT is shifting from driving technology to leveraging it. Doing this entails interfacing with your internal customers and then influencing them, the ultimate users. Selling your technology solutions, however, requires that you establish your credibility and that you develop your communication and consensus-building skills. You can establish your credibility by developing your business acumen -- essentially your understanding of what makes the business run.

Establishing Credibility

Becoming business-minded requires a high level of initiative, especially if there is no ongoing education program or way of integrating all of the business functions within your organization to give the IT group exposure to these issues. The good news is that corporate leadership generally understands the need for IT to become more involved with the business as it relates to IT and should be supportive of your efforts to learn more about it. In fact, they'll expect it and will likely be willing to provide training.

Something you can do on your own, however, is to start reading and understanding your organization's financial statements. Learn to read P&L statements, balance sheets and cash flow statements. Further your education by pursuing an MBA or other business training, but most importantly, stay on top of what is impacting the business both externally and internally. What are the general economic dynamics that are impacting the company?

Next, interact with other business units -- individuals in finance, marketing, operations. By showing an awareness of the issues affecting your users, you will go a long way in establishing your credibility and fostering a productive working relationship.

Seek to understand what is affecting the business lives of these people and what they are dealing with, and translate that into the kind of IT support they need. Meet with users regularly and get a sense for how you can leverage IT in a way that makes their lives easier, meets their goals and saves or even makes the organization money. Then, keep up with economic and industry trends by reading industry publications and business periodicals.

From a marketing perspective, seek to understand the market, the product cycles, time to market and market response times. With growth in international markets, for example, sales numbers are skewing more toward global markets. IT needs to understand this trend and be prepared to respond to it. Further, with technology, market data and business intelligence are coming back so rapidly that businesses need to be able to respond quickly to market dynamics. This is where the IT group can work with marketing departments to determine how to make this information meaningful to the company. On the finance side, understanding the impact of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, as well as other control and compliance issues, is important. How can technology be leveraged to help in these areas?

All and all, it's really about understanding the business in greater depth, then interacting with users and internal customers from a value-added perspective.

The Importance of Communication Skills

Most people can learn to read financial statements, but ironically, the bigger challenge for IT professionals will be developing the communication skills needed to interface with other business functions. IT can no longer hide behind a firewall. Communications skills will be a key element of your success. An important part of communication skills is your ability to influence the ultimate users, garner support for your IT solutions and build consensus. Establishing your credibility with your internal customers is the best way to start the communication process. Becoming more business-minded will help make your interactions with users more successful.

Conclusion

In today's work environment, the technology professional is being asked to interact more with the end user. IT is no longer behind the scenes. Instead, you will be front and center with the user of your products. As a result, IT staffers will need to have credibility with those individuals. To establish credibility, you will need to increase your understanding of the business from the users' perspective and develop technology solutions that focus on issues that are impacting them. While you may never have the depth of domain knowledge of your customers, your efforts to understand their needs will be expected and appreciated.

Bill Gilbert is managing director at Futurestep, Korn/Ferry International's recruitment outsourcing subsidiary, and is based in Atlanta. He can be reached at bill.gilbert@futurestep.com.

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