Alignment Demands IT Credibility
"In a healthy company, a CIO has got to be able to tell the CEO that cutting tech investments by 50 percent might be the dumbest thing he ever thought of."
Bill Zollars, CEO, Yellow Corp.
For many executives at the conference, aligning IT and business strategy first meant having to boost the credibility of IT. According to Elaine Beitler, CTO at Manhattan-based Bowne & Company Inc., a financial printing and document delivery company, IT "didn't have any credibility" when the company kicked off a project to digitize operations in 1999. "We were seen as slow and expensive," she said. "We were inefficient in the way we delivered systems, and in-house surveys showed IT employees were not clear on the business strategy. It was frightening."
So Beitler convened meetings between IT and business leaders and middle managers at the company to air differences and exchange criticisms. "It was not wonderful to hear that in some cases, our technology was a weakness," Beitler said. "But we needed to hear that to start building a stronger partnership with the business."
Building credibility also can mean doing a better job managing expectations for IT. Three weeks into a $25 million CRM project, "nothing was happening, and the business side was getting impatient," said David Goudge, senior vice president of marketing for Boise Office Solutions at Boise Cascade Corp. "We were not even moving, we were missing our internal deadlines. The CIO agreed." Goudge's solution: Set goals for change, but be clear in how you want IT to get there, even if it means creating new rules or resetting expectations. "We brought the CIO into the room, and I said, 'Look, hear me clearly. You don't have to be 98 percent assured that what you're going to do is going to be right. You can be 80 percent sure. It's okay with us if you screw up at 80 percent. We just need to get going, and fast.'" It worked. "Our IT culture needed to hear that, to be given permission from the business side," Goudge told the conference. "IT had gotten used to getting beat up if it did something wrong. We needed to change that part of the culture to be able to work together better."
But credibility requires honesty. When Boise first started its push toward CRM, one of the first steps needed to kick off the project was to take stock of what Boise had and what it needed. "We had a bunch of data buckets everywhere that weren't usable," recalled Goudge. Part of those early talks required both sides to speak frankly about what wasn't working. After a while, Goudge said, "I began sitting there thinking, 'Oh man, are we screwed up.' But it felt good. Why? It meant we were being honest, and that meant we could get better."