Building a World-Class IT Shop

Plenty of CIOs consider their IT operations to be “world class,” but what does that really mean? In his new book, World Class IT: Why Businesses Succeed When Technology Triumphs, Peter High chronicles five essential ingredients for meeting this lofty, and often misused, designation. Along with those five principles come anecdotes from some of the most respected CIOs in the business on how they achieved their goals. In this chapter, High, president of the consultancy Metis Strategy, describes the importance of one of these principles: building partnerships with the business. He focused on honing IT staffers’ ability to proactively work with and understand the business.

I often recommend that IT executives adorn the IT department with evidence of the business that the IT department is a part of. I recently worked for an IT department for a major retailer, and whenever I met with executives in the marketing or services divisions, for instance, I would see hot new products that the company sold, and there would be evidence of how the services arm helped customers use those products. When I would return to the IT department, it could have been the IT department of a manufacturer, or of a health care company. There was not a shred of evidence of the field the company operated in. If IT employees are to be innovative in their thinking, it is important that everyone be reminded where the company earns it revenues, and to provide the impetus for everyone to think about where the innovation path lies.

The best companies develop rotation programs in which associates flow between the business and IT. Each time this is done, a new bridge is built between what are traditionally islands of the corporation. There is no better way to align than to walk a mile in your partner’s shoes. Rotational programs allow for a true understanding of how different parts of the company work, how they differ, how they react to change, how ideas are generated and vetted. It also reduces the barriers based on language and experience.

Although it is a nascent trend, the reverse is also happening, not only at the more junior levels, but even for the top positions. More and more CIOs are emerging from the business, or at least these CIOs have spent some time in their formative years professionally in business roles before ascending to the highest post in IT. This is a shrewd move both for the company and for the CIO who navigated the path, as it is not natural to all CIOs to understand the business, to anticipate its needs, and to suggest solutions to the business before the business itself has anticipated those needs fully.

This trend will continue for many years to come, however, because members of Generation Y and, to a great extent, Generation X have an innate understanding and interest in technology. Many young associates at my firm majored in business and liberal arts disciplines, and never took a single engineering or computer science course, and yet they have an innate understanding of technology. They are never intimidated by technology. As a result, I think it will be much easier for people with those same majors who take jobs in marketing, sales or finance to hold the title of CIO as their first “C-level” experience.

IT departments should find those “digital natives” in the business who have been steeped in disciplines of the business units where they have worked, but who have a strong aptitude and curiosity about technology. This cross-pollination is certainly a win-win for IT and the business.

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