by Mark Settle

What do they really want? Decoding IT demand signals from your business

Jun 22, 2017
CareersIT Leadership

Every leader of a large IT organization manages two very different types of business. Okta CIO Mark Settle discusses the varying clientele, and what success (and failure!) looks like for both sides of the business.

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This article is part of a series highlighting key takeaways from my recently published book, Truth from the Trenches, A Practical Guide to the Art of IT Management. As a seven-time CIO I’ve had an opportunity to observe the good, the bad and the ugly aspects of IT management up close and personal. Truth from the Trenches is my attempt to share my experiences with emerging IT leaders to help them avoid the chronic problems that afflict so many IT organizations.

Every leader of a large IT organization manages two very different types of business. And each business serves a very different clientele and each has its own unique set of success metrics.

On the one hand, IT serves as the technical quartermaster of the enterprise, provisioning employees and contractors with the software tools, hardware devices and support services they need to perform their jobs. This is a transactional business in which the hearts and minds ofindividual employees are won or lost one at a time.

On the other hand, IT runs a technology consulting/systems integration (SI) business within the enterprise,  playing a critical role in planning and executing major business initiatives that are enabled through the creative use of information technology. The target clientele for IT’s consulting and SI business is a company’s senior executive team who will ultimately provide the funding and sponsorship for major technology initiatives.

What does success (or failure) look like?

IT leaders sometimes become so preoccupied with managing big-ticket, high visibility projects that they fail to focus on the “hearts and minds” battle that is being fought every day in new employee orientation sessions and calls to the IT service desk. While some level of dissatisfaction with IT’s competence or responsiveness is readily tolerated by senior business execs, chronic complaints about IT’s ability to provision new employees, respond to employee requests or resolve employee issues will inevitably undermine the credibility of the IT group – irrespective of their success in managing large projects. The key success metrics in this transactional business are technical competence and emotional empathy. An arrogant service desk staff will generate too much collateral political damage – even if they are incredibly competent. Conversely, no amount of personal empathy can save a service desk team that is basically incapable of solving employee problems.

Success metrics for IT’s consulting/SI business are somewhat more straightforward. IT has to demonstrate that it can consistently deliver major projects on time, within scope, and on budget. And it ultimately has to demonstrate these capabilities to the executive leadership of the company. Most employees are blissfully ignorant of the trials and tribulations that accompany major IT projects (unless they are project team members!). Failure to achieve anticipated results or meet major milestones or operate within agreed upon budgets is painfully obvious to a company’s business executives, but may not be apparent to the majority of the company’s employees. Major project failures have a way of creating lingering memories that will subvert IT’s ability to lead future technology initiatives. In fact, they may compel a company’s business execs to procure consulting and implementation services from an external SI in the future.

The influence of ‘super users’

The success or failure of IT’s consulting business hinges to a large degree on the relationships that IT develops with “super users” in individual functional areas. Super users frequently sit in operations teams that are embedded in individual functional departments, such as sales and finance. They typically know more about the capabilities of the applications and tools employed within their department than anyone else. Consequently, they play an important liaison role between IT and its business partners, interpreting business needs for IT and explaining IT capabilities to their colleagues.

The principal points of contact for functional super users are IT’s business systems analysts (BSAs). The success of IT’s consulting business depends directly upon the relationships that BSAs form with their functional counterparts. Effective super users recognize the limitations of their personal experience and operate as facilitators or gate-keepers. They educate BSAs about the internal business practices within their function; they recruit their business colleagues to assist in prioritizing IT requests and formulating IT initiatives; and they form a partnership with their BSA counterparts and increase their mutual value to the company.

Unfortunately, some super users view themselves as the “single source of truth” regarding the technology opportunities within their function. They are not interested in involving colleagues in prioritizing requests or planning initiatives since they believe they are fully capable of performing such tasks on their own. They may also believe they have sufficient technical knowledge to function as solution architects and will not only tell IT what to do but how to do it. Dictatorial super users expect the IT organization to comply with their requests and follow their direction with minimal discussion or debate.

Revenge of the business systems analysts

The ubiquitous adoption of SaaS applications has subtly, but quite fundamentally changed the balance of power in the super user/BSA relationship. Super users still possess business knowledge that a BSA can never duplicate and they play an important role in enabling access to their functional colleagues. However, in a SaaS-first world business applications tend to get used as is, with minimal customization. In a SaaS-dominated environment, functional groups spend more time adapting their business processes to the capabilities of SaaS tools than vice versa. A BSA’s knowledge of SaaS capabilities plays a critical role in configuring SaaS tools in ways that optimize the efficiency of functional business processes under these circumstances.

BSAs have been relegated to second-class citizen status in too many IT organizations for far too longer. They’ve habitually deferred to the desires of their super user counterparts and been treated as mere order takers by their IT colleagues. With the appropriate training in process re-engineering techniques and SaaS application workflows, BSA can exert considerably more influence within their client groups and materially enhance the impact of the overall IT organization. It would be criminal not to provide the training they need to assume broader, more impactful roles in a SaaS-dominated world!