Do You Really Know Your Business?

Much has been discussed about the importance of the CIO’s knowledge of the business in which they function (see our interview with Bill George).

The reality is, plenty of IT leaders have become knowledgeable partners with their business counterparts.

And here’s how they did it.

First and foremost, you must spend time in the field. If your organization has multiple sites, then make it your priority to visit them–wherever they are, home or abroad–and learn about the challenges they face. Do not wait to be asked. Great CIOs are anxious to understand how the business actually operates, the perception of the IT function in the field, and the current uses of technology that the organization is using.

If you operate in an international firm, then these visits are even more important because of the cultural differences that you will experience. It’s just not about different people–it’s about how business is conducted at each, unique location.

Second, don’t be a policeman; instead, be an advocate for the business. Listen to what people say and let them provide opportunities for you to champion their needs throughout the firm. Learn from them, especially if they are in a successful part of the business.

However, this doesn’t mean that you should not assert your opinions; you should push back when you need to do so. While this is can be tricky, just remember to always speak in terms of what’s good for the business.

Third, don’t make just one site visit. Rather, put together a plan of regular visits with the local and far-flung teams. Also, ensure that your organization is functioning to support the business and be open to allowing your team to actually report straight to the business. I have discussed this in previous articles and speeches. Providing leadership without the use of control is a very valuable business approach for today’s CIOs.

I would even invest in having staff spend rotational assignments in the business–showing your peers that you are willing to really commit to IT integration.

Fourth, visiting is one thing, but being knowledgeable provides you with another level of credibility. This doesn’t mean you need to be an expert in the business, but you should be a student of it.

Make it your objective to understand everything you can about its operations. This means getting to a level of detail that you might not think is necessary, but is actually very important to your peers. You might even think about taking some courses to become more useful in business conversations and meetings.

Finally, you need to “open up” IT to your business. Let them participate in some of your meetings so they can learn more about IT and appreciate your challenges. You’ll probably be surprised how many business managers are really interested in IT and want very much to participate in providing ideas.

This type of integration promotes joint proposals, trust, and a team effort that will elevate your credibility and value to the organization.

History has shown us that CIOs who fail to integrate may very well endanger their longevity on the job. Threats usually come from two areas.

The first may be negative accusations coming from your peers in the business, especially from those who feel limited by IT services or the controls placed upon their operations. Such threats are typically “out of perspective,” but nevertheless damaging to the CIO because they have not achieved a consensus with that business unit, or have failed to understand their needs.

The second–and more formidable–threat is that someone else will take the responsibility for planning IT integration from you. This threat can be hugely damaging: it conveys a negative message to your peer executives that you may lack the necessary business skills to evolve the CIO position.

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