by Mary K. Pratt

7 steps for better business-IT collaboration

Nov 29, 2021
Business IT AlignmentIT Leadership

Breaking down barriers and building partnerships between IT and the business takes time and effort. But the business outcomes are well worth it.

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Credit: TommL / Getty Images

Break down silos. Build cross-functional teams. Bring in business partners.

CIOs have been hearing those imperatives for years, with each of those commands addressing the need for IT to work hand-in-hand with the business.

Despite such advice and general agreement with it, many CIOs still struggle to get their teams and the business units to collaborate effectively. A 2021 report from software company Dynatrace showed that 49% of the 700 CIOs surveyed said that their IT and business teams continue to work in silos.

Such figures underscore a hard truth: that breaking down barriers and building partnerships takes time and effort.

“These things don’t happen through osmosis. It really is challenging work, and the larger the organization and the IT organization, the more effort it requires,” says Ryan Smith, vice president and CIO at Intermountain Healthcare.

Still, it’s far from impossible.

These 7 steps can help CIOs build better business-IT collaboration.

Seek out what’s not working

“Start with a really crystal-clear understanding of what’s not working by putting yourself into the shoes of your business partners,” Smith says. “At my level and at every level of my organization, when we’re out in the business, I want to be asking, ‘How’s it going? Need anything else while I’m here.’”

Smith says that direct approach is needed to surface areas that may not be top priorities but still need IT’s attention.

“We get very focused on the issue at hand, but the business often withholds information about what’s happening. They’re aware of other issues, and if we just stop and take a moment to ask them, it’s pretty amazing what can come from us [in IT] to help,” he says.

Moreover, demonstrating attention to business-side needs by directly asking for their thoughts creates opportunities for IT to collaborate on solutions, Smith adds.

He himself uses that approach, explaining that he makes rounds on a monthly basis, rotating through his organization’s various facilities to visit with senior leaders at each one. When they meet, he asks them about what’s working and what’s not. He says those conversations yield initiatives where the business is particularly receptive to working with IT to get a problem solved.

“It demonstrates we’re on the same team, that we care about their issues, their objectives, their strategies, and that we treat them like their our own strategies and objectives. We’re then seen as partners and it’s then worth their time to invite us to their meetings,” he says.

Always focus on business outcomes

A business-side colleague once approached Edward Wagoner insisting that the company needed to adopt blockchain.

Edward Wagoner, CIO of digital at JLL Technologies, says he could have launched into applications of the emerging technology, its benefits, implementation challenges, and deployment costs. Those are, after all, valid points that would weigh into corporate decisions on blockchain strategies.

But Wagoner took a different approach, steering the conversation instead toward what his colleague wanted to accomplish: “I asked, ‘How do you want to use it?’”

Borrowing a lesson common in sales training, Wagoner says it’s best to “always talk about the problem, the client’s problem, not the product.”

Of course, he says, talk about technology will enter those discussions. But any technology talk should avoid buzzwords and instead center on “thinking through what those mean and the competitive disruptions they enable.”

He points to how he and his colleagues collaborate on artificial intelligence initiatives.

“It’s about helping them understand the volume of data we generate through our systems combined with the increasing data we’ll see with a new experience app we rolled out along with more market data and how we can leverage all that data to make decisions,” Wagoner says. “When I talk about it that way, instead of using the term ‘AI,’ the businesspeople can wrap their heads around it. That’s how they understand the competitive disruption and can then talk about the business now, where it’s going and opportunities.”

Connect IT workers to business value

CIOs now know to align IT to the business.

That may be working at the executive and even management level, but Kathy Kay, CIO at Principal Financial Group, found that IT staffers often don’t have that same perspective and, thus, don’t understand how their contributions impact organizational success.

“I talk about how we need to know where we’re heading as a company and also how each one personally aligns to that; we need to make sure all of IT understands where the business is going and the role they play in that,” Kay says. “It’s about being very conscious about making sure people know how they fit in.”

It’s harder than it sounds, particularly for those working in shared services and delivering foundational technology, she says. “It’s harder for them to see or know the impact they may have on the business or customers.”

Kay uses a weekly Friday event (“Coffee with Kathy”), which can draw 300-plus attendees per session, to highlight the week’s work, detail IT’s contributions to business-side programs, and highlight how IT is supporting organizational goals.

Additionally, Kay works with her executives and managers to devise ways for them to help their own teams understand in greater detail how their individual contributions move the company forward.

This effort has shown a real return when it comes to IT performance, Kay says, explaining that she hears less “I don’t understand how this fits in” and more conversations about how their work supports specific business goals.

“When people understand how their contributions matter, they start working together with the business more collaboratively,” she says. “It opens up conversations that in the past might not have happened. And those IT teams who are closer to the business are then pulling in some of those teams who used to be considered just a support team. Then they, too, are becoming partners.”

Buddy up with the business

Collaboration at the executive level will go only so far, with CIOs saying they need to beef up collaboration efforts throughout their organization.

The Dynatrace survey speaks to challenges in this area: 40% of CIOs said limited collaboration across BizDevOps teams disrupts IT’s ability to respond quickly to sudden changes in business needs and 40% believed that limited cross-team collaboration makes it more difficult to identify the severity of an issue and minimize its overall business impact.

To counter those challenges, some CIOs advocate embedding IT employees into business units to create more cooperation between the two.

Wagoner has seen that approach work. He says when he took on the CIO role “it was almost like two separate groups that never talked to each other.” The business would detail what it wanted, IT then drafted its plans, “and that was how they communicated.”

He introduced a new position, the tech advisor, staffed by IT workers assigned to business units. He looked for people with strong technology backgrounds so they could hold their own with developers but also with enough business acumen to understand the issues and challenges on that side. Furthermore, the business line managers have input in the tech advisors’ performance review, even though they report into IT.

He says these advisors work more hand-in-hand with the business than typical product or relationship managers and even the usual business analysts.

He introduced the positions first to “business lines that were having challenges and looking to change. We found those looking for help, and that made it easier for us to make the case to put in embedded [advisors],” he says.

Years into the program, Wagoner says IT now not only hears more about business-side problems and challenges that technology can help solve, they learn about them earlier. He says the advisors “almost every day are finding ways to bring technology to address business needs.”

In fact, he had a tech advisor call him out on a plan for a security badge system, noting that there were two areas of business issues that he had overlooked. “I didn’t have that perspective that she had working closely with the business,” Wagoner adds.

Build a ‘high say/do ratio’

“The ultimate goal of collaboration is partnership between the business and technology, but that doesn’t happen because you say it. You can say you’re a business-oriented IT leader, you can communicate in business terms, but if the business doesn’t trust you, then you have no partnership. It only happens by building trust and having a track record of delivery,” says Eric Sigurdson, leader of the CIO practice at Russell Reynolds Associates.

He says true partnership comes when IT is part of strategic meetings — discussions about product line extensions, mergers and acquisitions, and customer value — even if those strategic meetings aren’t focused on technology itself.

That partnership only happens, Sigurdson adds, “if the technology leader is demonstrating true value and delivering on the mundane, everyday IT by keeping the trains running on time.”

That starts, he says, with building a “high say/do ratio.”

“It’s super easy in IT to say how great things will be, but then never deliver on it. You need to do what you say and execute with excellence,” Sigurdson says.

He worked with one CIO brought into a global company where IT was stuck in an order-taker role and where IT wasn’t much involved in strategic planning. The new CIO focused on earning trust from the business by offering his executive colleagues more details on IT’s plans, explaining how IT could enable their objectives, and consistently fulfilling the promises made by IT.

The CIO worked to instill that same focus on delivery excellence throughout all rungs of his team by holding them accountable for such performance.

Those steps then led to more collaborative planning sessions between IT and the business.

“He worked with the business to prioritize IT initiatives that had the biggest paybacks and deprioritize those projects that were less impactful, and over the first year and a half gained credibility that he could deliver on what he signed up for. As a result he became a more prominent member of the executive leadership team,” Sigurdson says. “The business then let the CIO into the planning process at earlier stages, where he could collaborate to shape strategy and product.”

Get agile right

Sigurdson says some CIOs sidestep the collaborative elements required by agile, DevOps, and other such development methodologies to avoid the possibility of contentious interactions and pushback from the business side balking at frequent meetings.

“Agile requires the business and technology to engage frequently and intensely on moving through a project,” Sigurdson says. “But now that the business and IT teams are talking every day, that collaboration can be contentious. There’s a lot of back and forth, and being told what you can’t get in the middle of the project is frustrating. It’s not always easy. And it requires candor, strong communication skills.”

But modifications frequently limit, or even take away, those collaborative interactions that are essential to those methodologies. What’s left then is “agile theater,” he says. (Others label it “fake agile.”)

“CIOs have to have training to help instill an Agile methodology that is genuine, as opposed to ‘Agile theater,’ where they use all the terms but they don’t actually embrace some of the hard realities of using the methodology,” Sigurdson says. “You need to train, and you need to train both business and technology so everyone comes to the table understanding this new paradigm.”

Start with willing participants

According to research firm Forrester, companies that are the most digitally mature, or “future fit,” grow 2.7 times the industry average. But Forrester’s research finds that only 8% of companies are in that advanced, “future fit” category. Another 33% are right below that top ranking, in the “modern” category, while the majority (59%) are stuck in the “traditional” IT stage.

“[At that traditional stage] IT doesn’t have a seat at the table, they complain about being treated like providers, and there isn’t a lot of collaboration with the business,” says Bobby Cameron, Forrester vice president and principal analyst.

CIOs who find themselves in such situations can — and should — find ways to advance to the modern category. But Cameron cautions against trying to do that on an enterprise-wide scale. Instead, he advises CIOs to look for the areas of the business that want to move fast and must be adaptive and then start building more collaboration muscles there.

“[Those business units] have stopped being focused on cost but on outcomes. They realize they can’t just do requirements. They know the relationship with IT has to change,” he explains.

Because of the rapid pace of change within their own departments, these business units tend to be receptive to continuous delivery of new technology products and embrace the use of pilots and minimum viable products to test and tweak, Cameron says. As such, they’re good candidates to engage in agile-type development methodologies.

“None of that works unless there’s collaboration, and because of that, then the whole mechanism [of the organization] starts to shift,” he adds.

That’s why, Cameron says, he tells CIOs who want to boost collaboration to “find the committee of the willing. Don’t try to turn the whole supertanker. Get in the speedboat and do some proof cases. You’ll find someone — in sales and marketing, or customer service, or supply chain optimization — where a move to modernize based on cost is creating an opportunity to do something with digital. That’s where you’ll find business [leaders] willing to create a business owner role and is at all the daily standups and the retrospectives. That’s a place where the business is trying to be efficient and the CIO can come in and say, ‘Let’s crank the collaboration up a notch.’”