From service provider to strategic partner: the journey continues

The push for IT leaders and departments to elevate and transform their role into a true business partner has been going on for several years. We’re not there yet, but we can move closer. Here’s how.

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The drumbeat to raise the CIO’s role from functional expert to strategic partner has been a constant since at least 2014. But as Billy Crystal reminded us, “Change is such hard work.”

Some organizations and CIOs get it right all the time, but if current surveys are to be believed, opportunities for improvement remain. For instance, the 2018 IT Trends Study from the Society for Information Management reports that activities associated with “keeping the lights on” continues to be the largest single budget category for IT organizations.

You can’t always equate the money necessary to keep everything functioning with what’s really important, right? Not to worry. There are other metrics to consider.

A report by Gartner states that simple growth is the number one focus for CEOs in 2018. On the other hand, areas that are typically linked to organizational growth rated much lower in the Society for Information Management Trends Study. Innovation, digital transformation, and agility (within the business and IT) were ranked at the bottom of the report’s Top 10 most important issues by IT professionals. That is unfortunate because a survey by Forrester Research found that the CIO—not the CEO—is the most important organizational leader for driving and supporting business transformation.

Turn interest into action

Contemplating how things could be different is an early step in the change process according to the Transtheoretical Model. Thinking and talking about change are, however, eventually written off as empty rhetoric without action. Here are four ideas to help you move closer to becoming the strategic partner your organization needs regardless if you are well into your journey or just beginning. As always, I have no financial interest in any of the companies referenced.

1. Get the basics right

Nintex Global Ltd, a business process and workflow automation company based in Bellevue, Washington, published an interesting report titled Definitive Guide to America's Most Broken Processes. The study asked 1,000 full-time employees about their organization’s most broken processes and who should be blamed for them. The top two culprits identified were technology troubleshooting and access to the tools and documents that enable good performance.

In addition to these two, respondents also mentioned problems with equipment onboarding for new hires; requesting a new computer or other technology device; app troubleshooting; password resets; deprovisioning of employees who’ve left the company; and printing documents.

Survey respondents are focused in their frustration. Seventy-three percent cited IT staff as responsible for the broken processes. A deeper look at the data shows an even more interesting result: 30 percent hold IT workers accountable while 43 percent blame the CIO or IT director.

Successful partnerships are built on trust, and competence plays a critical role. Failure to deliver on the basic expectations of your role reduce the chances that others will see you as a strategic partner.

2. Expand your vision for your role.

If projections hold true, 85 percent of the interactions with your brand will take place without human contact by 2020. Your business needs IT leaders to be more than experts in digital technology work. That is helpful if you can pull it off, but the pace of change will mean that Python is destined to become the next COBOL in relatively short order.

The strategic partner of the future will be the business leader who thinks about the customer experience from a digital perspective.

Katie Hickey, Marketing Manager at Usabilla, believes that adopting a true customer-centric approach to everything you do is crucial. She sees digital technology as a tool to do more than simply capture information. According to her, “Using technology to humanize technology is the ultimate customer experience application.”

Meredith Schmidt, EVP & GM of Essentials & SMB at Salesforce, told me that adapting a customer mindset means that IT professionals must make technology as easy to use in their business as it is in the personal lives of the individuals who work for the company.

Jim Johnson, CFO of Adaptive Insights, a Workday company, echoed that sentiment. More important, he knows that the finance professionals on his team share that desire, too.

The new role involves more than saying “yes” to every request in the name of being customer-focused. Johnson believes that a big part of the role is to be the rational voice in the room.

“I want to embrace the tools people need to succeed,” says Johnson. “I also must understand costs and prioritize trade-offs within a fixed budget. I need my CIO to provide sound business thinking to inform those decisions.”

3. Become comfortable with the new world of IT integration

According to Adaptive Insights’ Johnson, SaaS changed everything. He says, “Options are everywhere. On premises ERP systems are no longer the center of the IT universe. If you see yourself as the keeper of the infrastructure, you will be left behind.”

The best available tools, Johnson believes, are most likely to be in the cloud. They are specialized, easy to implement, secure, perpetually up to date, and self-service.

Salesforce’s Schmidt agrees. “Technology is so accessible and so good at fulfilling a specific need. It is easy for users to go ‘off the leash’ to pursue options on their own. The business wants to do things fast. A customized application isn’t as important any more. Products are designed based on best practices.”

The new role of integrator most likely means fewer long-term projects in the future. IT partners are likely to be on the evaluation and implementation teams rather than leading them. Users will look to you to ensure data portability, security, and flexibility to operate as their own system admin on the apps they use. They want to create their own reports when they need them not rely on IT to put it in the queue to run for them.

4. Prepare for a world that is nimble and relational.

The need to be nimble is a given. The days of the IT department implementing and supporting a single or even just a few tools are numbered … if they even exist today. Johnson, the Adaptive Insights’ CFO, sees a future where multiple tools are implemented for multiple customers all at the same time.

Technology leaders must have, as he says, “a different skill set that isn’t based on large database and enterprise applications.”

Security and infrastructure aren’t going away, but it is entirely possible that the application development role changes over time in the traditional IT organization. It is foreseeable that your team will focus more on project scoping, vendor negotiation, and, most important, helping customers anticipate needs than writing customized code. Those are very relational activities that require connecting with humans.

Katie Hickey believes that Usabilla’s approach of “Ask, Analyze, and Act” will benefit IT leaders just as much as the more traditional external customer facing areas of the business.

“Humans need to feel heard and validated,” says Hickey. Strong partnerships in our personal lives don’t develop without shared goals, communication, and time. It is unreasonable to expect them to do so at work.

That might occasionally mean stepping aside to allow your partner to take on new challenges or solve problems on their own.

Meredith Schmidt, in a previous role at Salesforce, implemented a new application without any involvement from IT. She is quick to point out that the purpose was to experiment on a single task, and the project was done with full knowledge and cooperation from her IT partners.

Nevertheless, a new application that would have taken about a year to develop internally was up in five days and only required the work of a single analyst.

Over the next year, IT was heavily involved in the product evaluation. Today it is managed and controlled by IT. The application has also expanded from one to forty-six jobs over that time.

Schmidt sums up the need for a nimble partner with a strong relationship this way, “I need an IT partner that will create ways for the business to try things.”

It is easy to hear the term “business partner” and picture a cliched relationship between colleagues. No one actively undermines the other, but neither goes out of their way to proactively help either. Your business needs and deserves more than that. It needs someone who will be flawless at the fundamentals while earning a bigger role in a different world. It needs someone who will bring ideas rather than wait to be asked. Regardless of where you are in the journey, there is still work to be done. That’s the way it is with the best partnerships. Everyone continually works to make the results better.

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