How to marry IT to the business

It is one of the most common refrains of recent years – IT must align with the business goals. So how do you do it? Here are a few ideas to help.

It is one of the most common refrains of recent years – IT must align with the business goals. So how do you do it? Here are a few ideas to help.

Stop Educating the Business and Start Delivering Value

I cannot tell you how many times I've heard CIOs say that they need to educate the executive committee about the value of IT. While I tend to nod and agree, the idea has always struck me as odd.

First, most business executives are not babbling morons; they should not need to be spoon fed information on any topic critical to their business. Second, the ability to educate is a hard-won skill; CIOs may be able to communicate--to write and talk and get an idea across--but they are not educators, a challenging role practiced by degreed academic professionals.

So I set out to understand why this notion of education persists and how a cross section of successful CIOs interprets the concept.

"Education is the wrong word," says Ellen Shepard, CIO of Teach for America. "Rather than worry about educating the business, CIOs should spend their time learning business strategy and how to enable that strategy through IT. The more you deliver, the less you need to educate."

Raj Kushwaha, CIO of Zimmer Holdings, agrees. "As CIO, you do not want to be in the position of educating your peers," he says. "If you are doing your job, you are not educating them; you are having strategic conversations about the business, with just a small percentage of that conversation about technology."

Once again, CIOs are facing a contradiction. What are the keys to escaping this education paradox?

Rely on your relationship managers. "If I try to handle all of the communication to my executive team myself, we will fail," says Tom Bauer, CIO of Allianz Life. "The communication that takes place one and two levels down is much more important." Bauer established a team of business-relationship managers in IT, each responsible for strategy and delivery to a specific segment of the business. With this team in place, "all that positive energy bubbles up to the executive level, which gives me the credibility to have more strategic conversations," says Bauer.

Build a steering committee one level down. Shepard also believes in taking a bottom-up approach. "As CIO, I have always established an enterprise IT steering committee made up of leaders one level down," she says. "If you want to improve IT delivery, you need to focus where the operational experience really is." To ensure the group comes together as an enterprise, and not just as a collection of silos looking out for their own needs, Shepard suggests developing a set of rewards for cross-enterprise success.

Set up road map sessions. To focus communication on developing and delivering initiatives, Tracey Rothenberger, CIO of Ricoh Americas Corporation, uses road map sessions. The business person who owns the process and the IT staffer who manages the relationship look at key business metrics. Then, by comparing those metrics to industry best practices, they develop an IT solution and an 18-month plan to implement it.

Bake improvements into plans. If you want to stop the need for education once and for all, says Zimmer Holdings' Kushwaha, don't rest after articulating the business benefits of an investment and gaining approval. "Make sure there is a closed-loop process with finance, where those cost savings or top-line benefits are baked into future budgets," he says. "If you are deploying a customer-relationship management system, you and the business-unit leader should agree on the forecasted impact on the top line." Once those objectives are part of everyone's plans, "that's when you have last-mile alignment."

The next time you feel the need to educate peers about what it is you do, perhaps you should see it as a sign: It is time to move from in front of the blackboard to the same side of the table as your executive peers.

Martha Heller is president of Heller Search Associates, an IT executive search firm, and a co-founder of the CIO Executive Council. She can be reached at martha@hellersearch.com.

Next: Team Up for Business Value

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