To gain respect, IT departments must mature

Posted on January 17, 2013

Summary Many IT departments are fond of proclaiming a lack of resources. This has only been heightened, in the last couple of years, by economic turmoil. I've also observed that we are quite ignorant of our role in creating this situation. There are some things we might all consider doing more of to remedy this situation.

Many IT departments are fond of proclaiming a lack of resources. This has only been heightened, in the last couple of years, by economic turmoil. I've also observed that we are quite ignorant of our role in creating this situation.

I'm referring to our need to better justify our investments, to discuss benefits more eloquently (while being more in tune with our audience), to hold ourselves more accountable, and to seek out better ways to connect the output of our activities to the engine that drives our organizations.

With this mind, here are some things we might all consider doing more of this year...

1. Digging deeper when attempting to justify new investments: In any business, there are always ways to bring the impact of an initiative closer to the real motivators for investment. What may seem immediately obvious to you may not be to a non-technical (or even technical) executive, especially one with many other folks asking for resources at the same time. It's also helpful to remind yourself that even good ideas don't get funded for all the right reasons. Successful businesses don't invest in all their good ideas, but seek to invest in as many of their best ideas as possible. Constraints of manpower, focus, and capital are a legitimate fact of life. Furthermore, we don't have the gift of omnipresence and we can only use hindsight after the fact!

2. Having a greater openness about our failures and limitations: There will always be investments that fail to achieve their aims. These should not be hidden away, but instead used to foster learning and build trust. Similarly, there will always be investments where success will seem hard to judge. With a frank set of business objectives at the start of a project (based upon desirable outcomes and not tasks) there will be fewer disappointments, more flexibility, and greater trust. This will increase support for future initiatives and the business will be more likely to achieve its aims.

3. Raising our standards, particularly in the area of firefighting: Some IT groups seem to wear their expert (and superb) reaction abilities as a badge of honor. That's okay, as long as it's used to provide an excellent response in the case of an unexpected event. Emergencies are no longer unexpected if they have become the norm. Elevate your standards by making firefighting the exception rather than the rule (while still retaining your ability to respond rapidly and effectively in an emergency). Seek out patterns in recurring fires. Treat the symptom quickly and then move on to solving the underlying cause. Better yet, ignore the symptom and knock out a solution once and for all. Fires are either the result of unexpected events, or they are the result of setting your standards too low. You choose which you prefer.

4. Making better use of the resources we've already got so we'll be able to get more: Limited resources are a factor for everyone. It's what you do with what you've got that ultimately decides whether you'll get more. Complaining is unlikely to move you forward. You may not love the results that you get from your very limited resources, but if you can't demonstrate that you used those resources wisely, how can you expect others to trust you to efficiently and effectively use even greater resources?

5. Putting business objectives first: IT isn't about technology, it's about business. Ironically, this means that IT departments who get the most capital for investment in new toys, tools, training, and technical staff are those who pay more attention to the business aspects of their activities rather than the technology aspects. Prudent technology investments are not more “correct” because they're more technically elegant. It is of greater importance that they produce results that are beneficial to the business.

6. Seeking success not perfection: Like so much in business, and in life, the name of the game is success not perfection. Don't make the mistake of seeking perfection over getting results. Technical people are often poor at hitting narrow deadlines by triaging features and requirements, and by applying the “80/20” principle. It is important to recognize when positive results have been achieved, even if the path there was not paved with perfect steps :-)

7. Seeking out, and pushing for, investments that generate money over those that only save it: While saving money is a worthwhile goal, the only reason there is any money (revenue) to attempt to save (by lowering costs) is because sales were generated in the first place. Creating new opportunities for increased sales – to both new and existing clients/customers – is not just the job of the sales and marketing groups. IT is involved in many different aspects of operations, both internal and external, direct and indirect. Stay alert to opportunities that boost the bottom line not only through savings, but also through growth.

8. Outsourcing important, but non-strategic and non-differentiating, IT functions while finding new ways to add value by innovating and being strategic: Outsourcing is not an all or nothing strategy. The IT folks that fear for their jobs when the topic of outsourcing comes up, force me to wonder whether their problem is just low self-esteem or if they are, in fact, adding less value to the business than they should be. Despite the harshness of this statement, in many cases, the problem is the former more so than the latter. Even when it is the latter, it is often correctable with a shift in perspective.

It is already commonplace to outsource activities such as telecommunications services (dial tone and Internet) and software development (e.g. off-the-shelf software). An increasing number of IT departments should consider outsourcing their entire in-house phone solution (no more PBX), their off-site storage, and the deployment, upkeep, and troubleshooting of their corporate network and employees' personal computers. The freed up time and energy (and money!) should be shifted towards strategic activities (such as seeking out more things to outsource for greater efficiency and, in particular, the seeking out of investments that contribute to business growth).

If you're concerned about outsourcing replacing your position, shift your efforts to increasing your value to the business (instead of fighting against smart outsourcing initiatives). As a side note, I believe that one is better off cannibalizing his or her own position – if it is probable or inevitable – rather than waiting for someone else to force the change upon him/her. With this perspective, everyone in IT has an opportunity to become a trusted advisor to the business. The alternative is to be viewed as defensive, as out of touch with the business, and as having an agenda. That's not a position you want to be in if you want your advice to be taken seriously.


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