Over the last 10 years, IT’s role has been to support or enable business strategy. This meant that CIOs needed people in their organizations who could understand a set of business requirements, translate those requirements into technology solutions, and deliver those solutions on time and on budget.
But in the new era of IT, when IT informs, or even defines, business strategy, CIOs need a different kind of IT professional. They need to transform their teams from order-takers to order-shapers, and cultivate a new mindset in IT. In order for IT to deliver on the promises of technology in the digital era, IT professionals need to have better business acumen. In other words, they must understand the business context in which they are working.
But how do you take a team of technologists, whose tool set undergoes a paradigm shift every 18 months or so, and give them business acumen? It’s not easy, but it’s a challenge that today’s successful CIOs are working hard to figure out.
1. Rotational programs
When it comes to changing your cultural outlook, there is nothing as powerful as walking a mile in someone else’s shoes. That’s why the most effective way to give IT people business acumen is to build a formal rotational program. A formal program will allow IT people to spend months at a time in a non-IT role, like supply chain, marketing or R & D. When they have learned the new function thoroughly, they return to IT and have a beautifully blended skill set.
At mutual fund company Vanguard, high-potential employees regularly rotate around the company. “Years ago, we rotated an IT leader out of IT to run our very complex institutional operations group,” says John Marcante, CIO. “Because that group had some very big people management challenges, the role presented him with a new leadership challenge.”
A decade later, Marcante brought this leader back to IT to run Vanguard’s data centers. “With DevOps and cloud computing, we were becoming a broker of data center services, rather than just providing compute and storage power,” says Marcante. “That strategy required big changes on the people side, and this leader would be well equipped to manage them.”
If you are the CIO of a company who has the resources to loan out a key IT leader for a long stretch of time, then buddy up to your HR organization and plan a formal rotational program. But if a rotational program is too much for you to bite off right now, there is still plenty you can do to teach business acumen to your IT staff.
2. Change your assessment criteria
Jim DuBois, the CIO of Microsoft, has a team that is tasked with providing IT strategy and support to the marketing organization. DuBois used to assess the team on how quickly it delivered solutions to marketing and how happy the marketing department was with IT. But he realized that that approach did not connect IT to the business context of their work.
So, he changed his measurement criteria. Now, Jim measures his team on whether their technology solutions actually increase the volume and the quality of sales leads. DuBois acknowledges that changing IT success criteria from a traditional IT measurement to a business goal was a major cultural change, but having made that change, his team is actually delivering faster.
“We used to meet with our business groups, gather requirements, write up a functional spec, get approval, have our technical teams read the document, write up technical specs, sign off on those, and then we would go build something,” says DuBois. “Everything took forever because the technical teams did not understanding which business metrics they were trying to change. With our new model, IT is directly engaged in business value and we can remove all of those translation layers. We have taken time out of the process.”
3. Develop a services model
When Gerri Martin-Flickinger was CIO of Adobe Systems, she transformed her staff from an IT team to a business team by restructuring the organization on a services model. Services fell into three families: employee, business and technical. Each family was broken into discrete services, including collaboration services, billing services, and storage. “I told my team that they needed to act like the CEO of their service,” says Martin-Flickinger. “I said, ‘I want you to know your customers and understand that you’ll be out of business if your customers don’t buy from you. You are not a utility person; you are the CEO of a small start-up company, and you need to delight your customer all the time.'”
Martin-Flickinger found that the new model helped turn her people into a business team. “Suddenly people started to act like business leaders,” she says.
4. Tap your vendor partners
Guy Brassard is CIO of Southwire, a $5 billion cable and wire manufacturing company. He wanted to increase his team’s knowledge of the business, so he decided to recruit people from different parts of the business into IT. But he faced a challenge. When he brought in people from sales, finance and logistics, they had strong business knowledge, but no experience in the kind of problem solving and change management activities that IT people perform every day.
So, Brassard turned to his vendor partners. He built coaching and training into his contracts and asked his vendors to work side-by-side with his newly imported business people. The vendors coach the team on IT processes, and the team teaches the vendors about the business.
What’s more, these new business imports present a positive role model within the company.”We now have a select group in the company who understand both the business and IT. Some of my IT staff who sat on the sidelines are now asking to spend more time in business meetings,” Brassard says,
Now that technology is important to every facet of your business, you, as CIO, need to change the culture in IT. Look for every opportunity to incentivize your teams according to how their own work drives business value.
Blended executives — that is, people with technology and business knowledge — do not grow on trees. Find a way to grow your own. The future of your company depends on it.
Martha Heller is CEO of Heller Search Associates, an IT executive recruiting firm specializing in CIO, CTO, CISO and senior technology roles in all industries. She is the author The CIO Paradox: Battling the Contradictions of IT Leadership and Be the Business: CIOs in the New Era of IT. To join the IT career conversation, subscribe to The Heller Report.