How a CIO can enable getting apps to market faster

Pitfalls to avoid in the relationship between IT and the business.

mobile enterprise apps

Remember the book Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus? It was about improving communication so you can get what you want out of a relationship. It reminds me of the challenge of IT and business stakeholders communicating effectively. When they do achieve this goal, it helps companies get apps to market faster or capabilities for user needs quicker. But it’s easy for something to get in the way of the relationship or even for an important advantage of the relationship to be overlooked.

An example is the experience of Trude Van Horn, CIO at NCH Corporation. I blogged before about the massive, complex Oracle ERP (enterprise resource planning) implementation the company undertook, completing 36 countries in Europe and Asia on two different Oracle versions in 36 months. As detailed in that blog, a major component of the value in the project was deploying custom sales and customer servicing tools on top of the foundational technology.

NCH is a conglomerate of companies. It has a federated, independent culture. Each region has its own CEO and independent sales organizations. Rather than mandating one customer-facing tool across the globe, NCH supported a region-specific, multi-tools approach. The company leveraged the deep relationships between longstanding employees in the IT department with the regional subject matter experts, sales people and other business stakeholders to collaboratively decide on and design the tools that addressed each region’s needs.

“This approach allowed the business folks to be in control of their own destiny in deciding what was the most important thing for their region and market,” stated Van Horn.

For sales and service tools, the U.S. region adopted one set of tools for remote order entry and the European region adopted a very different one. In Asia, a third set of tools was developed for sales support. NCH has equipment in many countries, so the European team looked at how to build a service tool that would allow the service technicians to service the machines in the field, provide customers with documentation and collect customer signatures on site to trigger invoices and service reports.

The U.S. team wanted a servicing tool that would enable water treatment salespeople to provide field service reports to customers. In Asia, there was a need to modernize sales calls, moving away from big binders of product and technical documentation, and modernizing these tasks with iPads in the hands of salespeople for customer presentations, product and ordering information, and success stories to walk customers through.

CIO role: nurturer

Looking back at the global modernization project that they completed successfully in 2015, Van Horn emphasized that NCH has very creative, innovative CEOs for each business with unique ideas — particularly around mobility. They leverage IT to articulate and develop those unique ideas. And because the relationship is so good with the IT sales and mobility teams, together they can figure out what that idea looks like and then find a way to partner and bring it to market more quickly.

“I’m proud to say that the spark really comes from our business leaders, and the strong execution comes from collaboration with IT. And it’s only because we have long, deep relationships and strong business knowledge that we’re able to leverage that spark,” said Van Horn. She touts those deep relationships between IT and business people in specialty areas as the company’s “special sauce.”

But it’s easy to forget that relationships must be reinforced and nurtured if they are to endure and grow deeper over time.

Van Horn’s strategy is to step back and empower her people to explore an idea and figure out if it’s a good one or not. Her team gives enough thought to it to understand if the idea has legs and how it will benefit the business.

“I know a lot of CIOs whose strategy is that every idea has to originate with or through them. That just slows everybody down,” she explained. She avoids being bureaucratic, which can get in the way of the relationships. When someone says, “I have an idea,” she says. “Our team will explore that idea with you.”

CIO role: empowerment

Van Horn makes sure her IT team knows they have the latitude to explore ideas with the business folks and that they won’t be the ones who have to go back and shut the business idea down if it won’t work.

When she came on board as CIO, one of the first changes she made was to empower the IT team. “I wanted them to have the power to do great things without having to come to me and ask, ‘May I do this?’ Inserting myself between the IT folks and their business partners would have negatively impacted our speed in IT and NCH’s momentum.”

She said the empowerment strategy was practical on her part because the agenda was huge. “If every decision had to come in one way, be presented in one way and be decided on in one way, we would have never gotten anything done.” Empowering the team to communicate and collaborate was the most expeditious approach. The IT team has employees who have been with NCH for 10, 25 and 35 years. “They have great ideas, know what needs to be done and how to accomplish it; but in the past they weren’t asked. They just needed to be empowered, and that’s what generated the speed,” said Van Horn.

In changing the team’s level of empowerment, she explained, “This IT team has deep relationships and strong technical expertise. The business folks are their customers. By empowering the team, I’ve put them in a position to more directly influence the way IT can serve the customers — better and faster.”

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