Tuesday, February 15, 2011

IT does not always need to be a partner in strategic change

We have read and wrote enough about the IT-Business divide and that IT should take more initiative in business improvement. I find it difficult to actually drive business improvement pure through IT initiatives, but in cooperation with business teams over the years I have been able to contribute to business improvements.
I don't say that there aren't options to do so. But in the end you need support from upper hand and need to get buy in from your business stakeholders. If you don't get this, you will find resistance and will be told to focus on the tasks given to you.

In my previous role as consultant I was able to contribute to strategic initiatives and coming up with ideas to improve the organisation structure and business processes that were implemented successfully.

In the more recent period I have been able to work with our Finance and Procurement teams where we as IT had a direct input in ideas for improvement. As a combined business and IT team we implemented a series of systems to improve operational efficiency and corporate governance. For example, years ago I identified potential improvements in the way we processed our invoices. Once we had the context in terms of systems and processes right, we came to a full automated solution for Invoice Processing. We selected the Basware technology and Basware was effective in implementing their solution. As a result Finance has earlier insight in outstanding payments and improved its cash management.

In another example we were able to transform a set of disparate online learning solutions for our customers into a single global web application. The result so far is that this website won an award for the best online training program by the German trade magazine ‘touristik aktuell’.

And that is where I think the role of IT should be: participating in operational and strategic initiatives and driving as such business improvements. I don’t think, bar some exceptions, that IT really will ever in the position to take the lead.

IT will always respond to possibilities. What we see now for example with strong growth in consumer technology that is being brought into the organisation, that it still is a response to new technology in the market. The business is strongly driving the demand for iPads, iPhones or the use of Twitter or Facebook, simply because they already know it from private use. Even if IT is first on the ball, it is still bringing it as an idea to the business and together with the business teams to define the business case or just to try things out. Even if we talk about all the possibilities in the cloud, we might talk about strategic choices for IT but from business perspective it is much operational efficiency. Only in exceptional cases IT might be able to drive strategic change and we should not want to try too much more.

When I look where our organisation was 5 years ago and where it is now in relation to finance and procurement, I am proud with this silent revolution to which we had a major contribution, not only for the implementation but also for idea development.

This can happen anywhere in the business as long as both parties are open to work together and see each other as equal partners.

Louie Ehrlich, President, Chevron Information Technology Company, and CIO, Chevron Corp might explain it a bit better here. But it comes down to the simple statement that if the business is not ready for IT being a strategic partner, don't try to push it.

The IT Evengalist addresses it from the angle of innovation and states that every innovation within IT (within that organisation) automatically is an innovation for the business. His complaint is the same as mine: " I have lost count of the number of the experts and pundits who are forecasting the demise of every CIO who doesn't "step up" and contribute to if not drive business innovation."

He also postulates that we as IT might be wanting too much to be the strategic partner: "So while IT is waiting for all of those business leaders to read the articles on the "IT organizations of the future," IT can prepare itself for the day the business actually looks to IT to help drive business innovation."

As an enabler for te business, you automatically assist with business innovation and support strategic develoment. In order to be a good enabler, you first of all need to have your house in order and not spend all your time fire fighting. Often the business will come with a new idea that needs to be done yesterday. To avoid that this results in a fire fighting situation, you need to understand where the business is heading to and be ready for the next challenge. It does not mean you will live up to the expectation of having the work done by yesterday. You simply need to accept that there will always be a conflict between expectations and the reality of getting things done.

But that is different than driving strategy or driving innovation.

Who is steering the car? The person behind the wheel or the person on the backseat telling the driver where to go? Does it really matter? As long as you get where you need to be in an efficient way.

The problem is in my opion more that due to the lack of partnering, opportunities are lost and efficiency is compromised. The driver and the passenger need to work together to make sure you get to the right address via the quickest route (and that is definetely true when using a taxi in Sydney!).

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