Funny thing about the word “and.” You would think it would function as a connector, a word that implies the togetherness of two entities, like “stars and stripes” or “franks and beans.” Yet the phrase “IT and the business” does not work that way. Rather, it connotes separateness and difference, creating an “us and them” perception that belies the actual embedded condition of IT.
“That phrase drives me up the wall,” says Bill Blausey, CIO of Eaton Corporation. “I correct my team if they use it. We are all tied together too tightly to use terms that create separation.”
As any marginalized group will tell you, the language people use to describe it has a powerful impact on how it is perceived. But changing language is only one step. Relationship building and metrics also have roles to play in taking on this paradox: You are intimately involved in the business but considered separate and removed from it.
Change the name. “We used to be the IT organization, but we changed our name to ‘Information, Process and Organization,’” says Dave Patzwald, senior VP of Integration Services at Schneider Electric. “The new name is good marketing, and the rebranding process was a chance to re-engage the company about what we do.”
Get invited. For a while at Schneider Electric, “IT was the dog that ate the homework.” Patzwald would learn through the grapevine that IT had been blamed for a quality problem during the CEO’s quality review meetings, to which IT was not invited. “They did not consciously exclude us,” says Patzwald. “They just hadn’t thought about how IT could help with basic operational issues.” So Patzwald and his team developed an IT performance metric and leveraged it to gain access to those meetings. “Hearsay is one of the symptoms of the IT-business separation. You need to eliminate it.”
Find the right metric. Blausey believes metrics are the language of unity, so he developed one called “operational contribution,” a simple way to describe not only working capital reductions, but also by how much IT increased sales and reduced other departments’ costs. Because that number is more than 10 times greater than traditional IT cost reductions, he says, “we have changed the conversation from a single focus on managing IT costs to driving operational improvements toward the company’s overall objectives.”
Advocate for the business. The gap between the business and IT tends to grow with the gap between the supply and demand for IT resources. For Peter Weis, CIO of Matson Navigation, this is fertile ground for sowing unity. “One of our business leaders had a pain point that he needed addressed in an IT project, but he was getting pushback from the IT project team,” says Matson. Weis spoke on the VP’s behalf and supported the business reasons and the funding for the additional functionality. “Instead of defending my team, I challenged them. Marketing IT is not the key to unity; it is in building trust with business executives by advocating publicly for their goals.”
Embrace the difference. For some CIOs, separation is actually a good thing. Jeff Donaldson, CIO of GameStop, wants IT to be seen as a separate consulting unit. “We want the culture of a Silicon Valley start-up firm, an innovator that exploits new technologies, an aggressive provider of IT services competitive with other industry options,” he says. “If we don’t focus on building that culture, then the business won’t come to us.”
CIOs like Donaldson, who see their role as CEO of a technology company, don’t view separation as a problem, But CIOs who have unity as a goal must continue to whittle away at the “and” of “IT and the business,” and make the “us and them” relationship a thing of the past.
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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.