Do you wish business executives and IT could work together better, collaborating on projects and fully sharing information? If you’re like most IT leaders, the answer is very much yes. The benefits of improved business-IT collaboration include things such as projects that better fit business goals, improved change management, and better buy-in for new initiatives.
Not only that, collaborating well with the business is a survival skill for today’s technology leaders. In 2021, Gartner research showed that more technologists were being recruited for functions outside IT than within it, says Darren Topham, senior director analyst at Gartner. Meanwhile, with easy-to-use, cloud-based, no-code or low-code solutions readily available, tech-savvy business professionals can handle much of their own technology without any help at all. “I think CIOs have a real challenge,” Topham says. “They can no longer afford to try and own the whole IT estate. There has to be collaboration and dispersal.”
It’s clear that increasing collaboration between business and IT should be a high priority for most tech leaders. But how do you actually make it happen? Below, five IT leaders share the strategies that have worked for them.
When Darren Person joined market research company The NPD Group as global CIO three years ago, he wanted to know how things at the company operated at the ground level.
The NPD Group
“I’ve found when people enter the company at the C-suite level, a lot of them never really get into the weeds, understanding how a business actually runs and operates,” he says. That observation applies equally to IT people, focused on a company’s technology, and to top-level executives who tend to be far removed from day-to-day work, he says.
Because NPD is a data company and Person oversees data architecture, “I own the factory,” he says. “So I thought it was extra-important that I understood how it actually worked.”
Too many CIOs spend all their time with their attention fixed on the C-suite and the board, he adds, and only working with one or two levels of direct reports. “When you make decisions and set strategy, there are a lot of things that roll downhill to the staff that are not always visible.”
Person found that if he went to people’s offices and observed their work, they would talk to him more freely and he could gain greater insight into their everyday challenges. He found the process so useful that he formalized it into a program called “Day in the Life.” Today, all new NPD hires go through this program, which is a combination of video, meetings, and (before the pandemic) visits to offices to observe people doing their jobs. Participants spend anywhere between a few hours and a few days learning how different areas of the company function. Cohorts of new hires from various areas of NPD go through this program together, he adds. “So it creates a little bit of camaraderie with people you wouldn’t normally have that with.”
The biggest benefit is greater collaboration, Person says. “You build these relationships, you build these connections that maybe you wouldn’t have had before.” Observing people doing their jobs has also enabled NPD’s technology experts to make that work more efficient. “A lot of people pointed out some of the work they were doing in a very manual way,” Person says. “That opened up a ton of projects where we could create tools to help support the team. A lot of the work we’re doing now in AI and machine learning was really driven by those meetings with those individuals.”
2. Embedded IT
One way to make sure that IT fully understands the needs of a department or business unit is to have an IT professional become part of that department or business unit. He or she might still report to IT, or might report through the business unit or department but work in close collaboration with IT.
This approach has been very successful at project-based software maker Deltek, according to Prithvi Mulchandani, vice president of IT business applications. “We have teams across the business with names like Customer Care Operations or Financial Systems,” he says. “They don’t report to the CIO, they report to the CFO, and chief customer officer, etc. These are teams of fairly technical individuals residing within the business.”
These employees are hired by the business units, often in consultation with IT. “Typically, their responsibilities include providing tier-one support to business users, developing reports, and meeting the analytical and data needs of their users,” he says. “They will also do more traditional IT projects, for example if we have a pain point around a certain business process and want to do some discovery to see if there’s a solution we can buy and implement. They will play a lead role, at least initially.”
3. Reverse-embedded IT
Although embedding IT professionals in business units is more common, some IT leaders are finding success with the opposite strategy: embedding business professionals within IT.
“I brought someone from the finance team onto my team who didn’t know IT,” says Mike Vance, executive vice president of professional services at technology consulting firm Resultant. “That person is now a Scrum master at a major insurance company. I brought them in because they were hungry, humble, and smart, and I wanted them to build a relationship with the business and then translate that back.” Vance has often used this approach, hiring IT liaisons from other departments such as HR.
IT liaison may sound like a business analyst position but it’s really much more, he says. “The job is to make sure you fully understand what the business is trying to achieve, and then bring that back and articulate it to IT because that’s the gap that always happens.” IT liaisons already have credibility from their contacts in the business because they came from there and are already very familiar with that area’s functions and challenges.
IT liaisons do have to build credibility with their new IT colleagues. “That happens as soon as you’re removing barriers for them, making things get out the door faster,” Vance says. “Or going back to the business to say, ‘Hey, what you’re asking for is actually a significant change in the way the system is configured. Can we find another way to get at it?’ Just that in-between work is really powerful.”
4. Cross-functional teams
One of the most familiar, and most effective ways to create collaboration between business and IT is with cross-functional work teams. These teams bring together IT professionals with professionals from other areas of the business to work together on a project or initiative. They can run anywhere from a month to three months or a year, Topham says, and they always have a specific objective.
This approach is becoming more common and more formalized, Topham says, with companies beginning to include cross-functional teams within their organization charts and, increasingly, orchestrating their activities to make sure employees with specific skill sets are available when and where they’re needed.
In at least some cases, cross-functional teams are becoming a permanent feature of the business-IT landscape. Before Resultant, Vance was CIO at Steak n Shake, where he also put IT liaisons in place as he later did at Resultant. But in that very large organization, he also created Business Advisory Boards (BABs) in which the IT liaisons met regularly with the leadership of various functions to talk about their priorities and force rank those priorities.
That put a stop to IT projects being prioritized through informal hallway conversations, he says. “Because the answer would be, ‘Well that’s number 15 on your list. If you want us to move that up, we can move it up.’” This not only kept everyone aligned on what the most urgent projects were, it also helped hold IT accountable, Vance says. “Because you’re talking weekly, they’re seeing the status of their projects. You might say, ‘Hey, we’re waiting on you to get back to us on this,’ or ‘That slipped, and here’s why.’” Thus, in addition to better alignment, the BABs also created greater transparency.
5. Training for non-IT people (and vice versa)
One of the best ways to improve alignment and collaboration between business and IT is for non-IT people to understand technology better. With that in mind, many companies offer education programs where IT people teach their non-IT colleagues about the systems that run the business. These can range from simple “lunch and learn” meetings to formal educational programs, such as the one at insurance giant Liberty Mutual, which has created an internal tech literacy program for its non-tech employees.
“It’s a homeroom curriculum that starts with a two-day immersive foundational program,” says Andrew Palmer, CIO. “We started originally with our top 100 leaders, but we’ve been expanding it.” So far, about 1,000 Liberty Mutual executives have taken the program since it began in 2019. More recently, the company also created a self-paced video version, which it is now offering to Liberty Mutual employees worldwide.
Given its audience, the curriculum is surprisingly advanced. “After they go through the foundation, we have modules around things like data systems and insights, security, emerging tech, telematics, and all kinds of deep dives into these areas. Our goal isn’t to have them walk out coding, but we don’t want to water it down either,” he says.
The impetus for the program came from top executives who recognized that the 110-year-old company was facing younger, more digital competitors. “We very quickly learned that a lot of the disruption and innovation was going to be done at the intersection of business and IT,” Palmer says.
That’s a risk for a large company, he adds, because in tech startups, everyone thoroughly understands both the business model and the technology — there is no division between business and IT. “There is a certain base tech literacy that’s required to communicate across that intersection, and providing that was the intent of the program,” he says.
One immediate result is that Liberty’s business execs understand technology debt far better than before, Palmer says. “In the past, tech debt was something that IT would work on in the background and just do it as a night job. Now we have a much tighter linkage between the business decisions being made and the cost of running those decisions in the infrastructure.”
That also means business leaders better understand their options for managing technology costs. They’ve also learned to consider IT capabilities at every stage of their decision-making. “Our planning discussions are much richer,” Palmer says.
More recently, the company decided to turn the highly popular program around, creating courses about the insurance business for IT people. That’s especially valuable, Palmer says, since the company’s digital transformation, which eliminated many business analyst roles.
“When we moved into an agile framework, we had product owners working directly with engineers,” he says. “It was really important that the engineers drive a lot of the problem solving around business opportunities to take that translator step out, as well as do a lot more of the testing.” The business literacy program for IT has run a pilot with 40 engineers so far, and will be rolled out this year, he says.
Palmer’s advice to other tech leaders who want to launch education programs? “Don’t water it down and don’t make it too abstract.” Recognize that business leaders who thoroughly understand what IT does will make better partners. “You’re not giving value away — it is not a zero-sum game,” he says. “And have your senior IT leaders facilitate and be the teachers. Otherwise, you’ll be missing out on a trust-building opportunity.”
6. Full participation in corporate programs and events
AppDirect CIO Pierre-Luc Bisaillion previously served as CIO at Cirque du Soleil Entertainment Group, the famed circus company’s administrative headquarters in Montreal, Canada. The company’s 120-person IT department ran the systems, such as ERP systems and HR systems, that kept the company going (its performance technology was handled elsewhere).
When Bisaillion first arrived at that job, he found an IT department in need of an image makeover. “IT was in a bit of a stereotypical situation — you know, IT in the basement and the WiFi never works. So not a very proud culture or mindset.”
He set about improving things by restructuring the IT department. Where before, employees had been grouped by their specific functions, such as business analyst, project manager, or developer, he created dedicated delivery teams that brought together these roles to serve a specific area of the business such as HR, Finance, or Creative. That created much greater transparency, clearer ownership, and prioritization of projects.
At the same time, Bisaillion wanted to do something concrete and immediate to raise IT’s standing within the organization and its own self-esteem. Halloween was coming up, a time when the corporate group always held a costumed parade around its headquarters building. “You can imagine that at Cirque du Soleil, Halloween is a very important event and it’s celebrated throughout the entire organization,” he says. He decided that the IT department would participate fully in the parade.
Bisaillion and his team settled on Gru and the Minions as a theme that might make people want to join in. He volunteered to be Gru, which required hours in a makeup chair. Though he didn’t mandate parade participation, he ordered enough yellow t-shirts and hats to turn every IT employee into a Minion. The whole department came out and at the parade IT Minions took over the stages. They won a prize, he says. “But to me, the best thing I heard was an employee who said, ‘I’ve been here for 11 years and I’ve never participated in a Cirque du Soleil Halloween parade before.’ It was about getting IT together, showing we belonged, that we could deliver something fun. That built a lot of confidence about what we could do for the business.”
It improved attitudes on the business side as well. “IT was now top of mind, and not just as people who could do WiFi,” Bisaillion says. “We’re here, we understand, and we want to be part of this culture.” Slowly, attitudes about IT began to shift toward the business and IT working better together. “It didn’t change instantly,” he says. “But it opened the door to building relationships.”