Assessments Are Opportunities

Baseline reviews, audits and other assessments are opportunities to reevaluate direction, change strategy and enter new markets

Many corporations periodically commission external assessments of their IT organizations. IT staffers usually look forward to these assessments (also known as baselines, reviews and the dreaded "audit") with the same enthusiasm they exhibit for root canals. Assessments are often perceived as witch hunts with hidden agendas whose primary purpose is finding fault and punishing (or firing) the guilty.

In reality, assessments offer valuable benefits. They provide IT staffs and senior managers with a rare opportunity to step back from day-to-day concerns and re-evaluate direction, change strategy and enter new markets. In addition, assessments often help to improve other departments' perceptions of the IT organization. Assessments are frequently commissioned by new CIOs as an unbiased way to quickly familiarize themselves with their new organizations.

Good assessments offer an impartial and comprehensive picture of IT concerns across the enterprise. They must clearly describe the business demand for IT services and the cost of those services, and they must provide an analysis of IT's capability to deliver. These components together should provide a thorough summary of IT's strengths and weaknesses. In addition, assessments normally include recommendations for strategic changes and clear definitions of the projected benefits to be derived from the recommended changes.

Here are some additional things assessments can help you accomplish:

Develop a common language. Different people use different terms in different departments. Having a set of common terms and definitions eliminates many misunderstandings and can help the organization separate symptoms from root problems. For example, common definitions help distinguish discretionary and nondiscretionary IT expenses and tangible and intangible benefits. Definitions also facilitate the process of weighing options and developing solutions.

Develop a common understanding. A group of executives discussing an IT problem can resemble the proverbial group of blind men describing an elephant, where each perceives the animal differently depending on which part of its body he's touching. While each viewpoint is valid, none is able to accurately describe the entire elephant. An assessment provides an overall understanding of IT that combines multiple perspectives and provides a common framework from which to analyze IT issues and concerns.

Listen across the company. It's easy for senior management to become isolated from the people and problems they manage.

Middle managers and knowledge workers usually have a good understanding of existing problems and potential solutions. However, they frequently have no mechanism to communicate these ideas to the executive team. An assessment provides an opportunity for senior management to listen to (and learn from) all levels of the organization. Don't overlook the many good ideas floating around your company.

Gather competitive information. Understanding where your business programs lead or lag your competition's is critical. Use an assessment to gain industrywide perspective. Compare your IT services, unit costs, service levels, etc. with those of other companies. Consultants and research firms can provide competitive data. In addition, other companies in your industry may share their data privately.

Establish a discussion forum for IT issues. Virtually every IT organization has a large backlog and vocal critics. Well-run IT groups have entities that establish IT priorities and debate contentious issues. These may take the form of steering committees, IT executive committees or, ideally, agenda items at executive management committees. If an effective forum doesn't exist in your company, the assessment can be used to establish this important function. And remember, this group should also be made aware of (and celebrate) all successful IT efforts.

Provide air cover. Investing in an assessment demonstrates the company's desire to improve the way IT supports the business. Inevitably, the desired improvements will require additional staffing, funding or political capital. The assessment helps provide justification for these needed resources. As a side benefit, it also helps mute the critics until the results of the improvements are realized.

Function as catalysts for change. Even when improvements are desired, people usually resist change. Assessments can provide the necessary inspiration, energy and momentum for change to occur.

An assessment is only the first step. Budgetary or other constraints may require you to pick and choose from among the assessment's recommendations. But you won't reap any benefits from an assessment if you don't take any action. Use the assessment to bring about changes that will improve your organization and enhance IT's ability to support the business.

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