Getting Back to IT Basics

By Marc J. Schiller

CIO Careers: Zero Budget + Happy Users = Influential IT

What does a CIO need to be successful? We each have our own answers. Some may say that technical excellence and knowledge count most, others might place the emphasis on business awareness, relationships or just hard-core ambition. Certainly, all of these are necessary to reach a certain level in an organization. But to take the final step and be accepted as someone who is truly a member of the C-suite, you need one more thing: influence. This is the fifth in a series of articles on how to position yourself as an influential leader in your organization. The first installment was CIO Career Killer: Lack of Influence; the second was CIO Careers: Why IT Gets No Respect; the third was Winning Over Business Users When You Don't Have a Dime; the fourth was CIO Careers: Measuring Your Credibility.

While you are working on last week's "assignment" and figuring out how much credibility you have within your IT organization, it's time to turn the discussion back to jumping IT budget hurdles.

IT budgets are tight and they are likely going to get tighter as corporate America battens down the hatches for another recession. But, truth be told, this happens to be an unlucky coincidence. You can expect to face tight budgeting environments a number of times over the course of your career as a successful CIO.

Businesses, industries, countries and even whole economies go through cycles. When times are good, IT has the budget to undertake new projects. In lean years (which, for IT is usually half of the time, if not more) projects are scaled back or eliminated, and IT leaders struggle to engage stakeholders. You might as well use today's economic environment to learn the ropes. It's an skill set that will help prepare you to withstand future budgetary drought.

Substituting time for money

When we first looked at the issue of building influence when you haven't got a dime, I proposed a basic approach, i.e., to shift your focus to investing time in place of money. It's essential to regard your time, the time of your key people, as your most precious resource, one which needs to be carefully allocated to your company's most important challenges and opportunities.

I know your next question. I get it all the time. It goes something like this:

"I would love to invest my group's time on the key issues facing our company. But to do that, we need to meet and talk with our business counterparts. And the fact is that when we haven't got a project to discuss with them, it's nearly impossible to get their attention. What are we suppose to talk with them about without a project and budget? How are we supposed to engage the user community when all we have to offer is our time?"

It's a fair question and often a real problem for many IT leaders.

The good news is that there is a solution; one that not only gets you and your team the time and attention of your business colleagues, but will also enhance your influence throughout your enterprise.

Getting Back to IT Basics

Let's agree on a very basic premise to start: Users judge IT systems from the top down. In other words, based on:

  • The front-end interface, i.e., the look and feel.

  • Their experience navigating through the system and using it to perform their work WITHOUT any training.

  • Whether or not the functionality they envisioned automatically appears at just the right time in just the right way.

  • The data accuracy

  • The speed and responsiveness of the system.

  • Whether or not they need to call tech support even though they never attended training.

  • Everything else that went into building the system and delivering it to them.

In short, it's all about the user's experience with the system.

They don't give a hoot about all the work that went into building the back end of the system--the guts of it all. They couldn't care less about the data model, the special interfaces or the customer de-dupe algorithms your team spent months perfecting. All they care about is their experience as users. And if that experience feels awkward or unintuitive to them, then they will conclude that there is something "wrong" with the system.

Let's put aside for the moment whether or not the way users judge systems is justified and appropriate. (We all know the answer to that anyway.) Let's not jump to a defensive position because of the user communities' unrealistic expectations. Let's, instead, admit that IT doesn't always do the best job when it comes to engineering a crisp and engaging user experience. We don't typically spend enough time understanding how the system fits into the users' workflow. And finally, working within the constraints of time, budget and the software package we often sacrifice user engagement and experience on the alter of "the perfect is the enemy of the good."

In the vast majority of cases there is great room for improvement in the user experience, unrealistic user expectations notwithstanding.That gap between the desired user experience and where things are today is exactly where you and your team have the opportunity to engage with the business community.

The answer is found in the battlefield, not in HQ

Given how important user experience is to your business colleagues, I guarantee you will find an open door and warm welcome when you tell your colleagues that you want to work on improving the user experience of the systems. The first step in the process? To get your people walking in the shoes of the users; to get them to experience firsthand what the users experience. No secondhand relating of problems. No change requests. I'm talking about real-life, side-by-side, user experience evaluations. Send your IT staff out into the workplace as if they were anthropologists sent to document human behavior.

Focus on User Experience

I'm sure you remember those types of experiences from your early days in IT. It's really what our job as IT professionals is all about. Unfortunately, when it comes to large projects, outsourced vendors, complex organizations and so on, it's easy be distanced from the real action, where the rubber meets the road. Here's where your job as the CIO comes in.

It's up to you to make the focus on user experience a priority for your team. It's up to you to create an awareness in your team about the importance of working side-by-side with business colleagues on the system issues that are most important to them.

What happens next?
If your organization is like most, user experience reviews are going to uncover three types of issues:

  1. Quick-hit wins that can easily be implemented through minor configuration changes or with targeted user training

  2. Long-term issues that require significant budget but which have a real and meaningful payback

  3. Nice-to-have features that aren't valuable to pursue

You know exactly what to do. Go for those quick hits. Work with the business to "find the budget" over time to meet the high impact goals, and manage expectations on the "nice-to-haves"--standard blocking and tackling for IT managers.

The result?

A renewed focus on improving user experience, facilitated by the IT leadership directly, is just the sort of initiative that tells the user community that, even when budgets are tight, you are there to work on the things that are most important to them. This builds influence and credibility like you can't imagine.

About the author

Marc J. Schiller, author of "The 11 Secrets of Highly Influential IT Leaders," is a speaker, strategic facilitator, and an advisor on the implementation of influential analytics. He splits his time between the front lines of client work and evangelizing to IT leaders and professionals about what it takes to achieve influence, respect and career success. Download a free excerpt of his book at http://11secretsforITleaders.com

This article was originally published on 08-23-2011