by Susan Cramm

Don’t Think That IT Knows Best

Nov 01, 20024 mins
IT LeadershipRelationship Building

You can never be smarter than your customer.

Stop and listen closely. There are voices in your department claiming to know more than your internal customers. These voices say things like, “They don’t see the big picture,” “They don’t have a strategy,” “They don’t know what they want,” and “They aren’t really committed.”

Logic tells us that this “IT knows best” attitude is ridiculous. Few IT professionals have grappled with the challenges of meeting unreasonable profit targets in a tight economy. The tendency for IT to go it alone is really a defense mechanism, fomented by years of trying to serve a distracted and technically unsophisticated audience.

You would have thought that the era of the know-nothing user was over. After all, aren’t we all now using terms like business partner, customer and client? Well, the fact that I still hear “IT knows best” voices and see these behaviors shows that it takes a lot more than wording changes to transform the underlying attitudes.

This point of view is dangerous because it drives a wedge between IT and the business, by undermining business authority in IT management under the guise of customer service, efficiency or strategic imperative. To illustrate how this facade of superiority impacts IT effectiveness, let’s examine two critical processes.

Strategic planning. The “IT knows best” attitude results in the IT group determining strategy with minimal input or direction from the business. I am always surprised when my coaching practice clients have to be reminded that strategy is a participative process. Of course, I too made this mistake at one point, when I moved from strategic planning into a CIO role. I understood the business strategy and IT implications well enough, but my knowledge meant little since my business partners did not necessarily see things the same way. Instead of evangelizing and sponsoring initiatives, I needed to be educating and listening. Remember, the right strategy is one that has commitment from those responsible for delivering business results.

Often, CIOs face the challenge of defining IT strategy with little or no formally articulated business strategy. They sometimes respond by trying to document the “implicit” business strategy or even to drive business strategy development. It doesn’t work. The IT organization cannot have a longer strategic horizon than that of the business. In cases like this, the best that IT can do is drive IT priorities from business priorities (by asking questions like, What do you hope to get done next year? and How do you measure success?). From that, the IT group can try to build something that lasts by understanding data and business processes and being a stickler on standards.

When it comes to establishing annual priorities, CIOs sometimes make the mistake of tackling the job alone, by trying to reconcile the strategic plan with the tactical functional demands and the available funds. The CIO may be right in the initiatives that are the most promising and pressing, but the list of funded projects should include only those that the business leaders will fight for and the governance council approves.

Project execution. Believing that “if we don’t do it, it won’t get done,” IT sometimes justifies the project value for the project sponsor. In assuming the role of the customer, however, the IT group is threatening the potential success of the initiative. Better to let an initiative fall by the wayside than to start a project without the necessary business commitment and leadership.

When it comes to project execution, CIOs who follow the “IT knows best” approach assign IT managers to head up all projects and train systems analysts to drive the requirements definitions. While it’s true that business managers are typically too busy managing the process to build strong expertise in project management or analysis, adopting these roles misaligns authority and accountability. It is IT’s job to use its expertise and influence to coach the business on how to set up projects for success?by helping line managers strike a good balance among scope, approach, staffing and oversight.

In “IT knows best” organizations, the CIO is violating the rule that you can never be smarter than your customer. If you’re lucky, your business partners will revolt and rebalance the roles. More often than not, though, they will be focused on the day-to-day business demands and will let IT run the show. But when results are less than expected, IT will be left (rightly) holding the bag. Anytime you hear the “IT knows best” voices and see your organization taking on the role and authority of the customer, you know that your organization is out of step and at risk.