IT must think like a business and go beyond traditional business partnerships

By shifting its mindset from supporting core technologies to one that is more closely in tune with business objectives and customer needs, Oshkosh Corporation’s IT has a sharper focus and understanding on leveraging solutions that ultimately make a difference in people’s lives.

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Over the past few years, IT has been asked to take a more active role in partnering with the business to help enable business objectives. For most, a strong IT and business partnership is paying dividends, resulting in digital solutions that directly impact product or service delivery, improve operational efficiencies, or improve the overall customer experience. 

Often, these solutions are tangible, such as new or improved back-end software, AI-enabled call center functionality, or a mobile app that provides a higher level of visibility and access to end-users. Essentially, IT organizations have evolved their operating model from a focus on running and supporting the business to an incremental focus on business partnership to drive improvements.

But is this approach enough, as technology advances at a rapid pace and the basis of competition quickly shifts?

Economies of scale are creating significantly lower unit costs, opening the door to new applications of technology and business use cases. As a result, companies are facing value-enhancing opportunities as well as disruptive threats. Today’s technology and the “art of the possible” is transitioning from enabling and improving the business to transforming business processes and business models.

At Oshkosh Corporation, everyone in the organization has one common purpose: to make a difference in the lives of others. This common purpose and philosophical approach to business has resulted in market-leading positions in each of our businesses. For example, as part of our organization, we design fire apparatuses used to respond to emergencies, such as a burning building. A fire truck’s core purpose is to help extinguish a fire, but Pierce Manufacturing (an Oshkosh business unit,) differentiates itself from other manufactures by going beyond the core need and looking at broader ways to make a difference in the lives of the men and women who keep us safe. This mindset is what drives market-leading innovation such as our aerial situational awareness system, which is a tethered drone that provides hands-free video streaming for thermal surveillance, live transmission to in-transit responders, and scene documentation for our firefighters.

With this in mind, we adopted the same core philosophy within our IT team. We no longer think of IT as a supporting function focused on our core products (e.g. network, infrastructure, information security.) We think of IT as a business focused on making a difference in people’s lives through digital solutions. So, in every decision we make, we ask the fundamental question, "How do we leverage technology to make a difference in the lives of our internal and external customers?”

This approach is a different way of thinking that goes beyond establishing a business partnership. Like any business, we take time to understand our product and service costs, value, quality and build strategies to optimize our product and service portfolio. We spend time empathizing with our customers by gaining a firsthand understanding of their needs and pain points. 

When we think of the characteristics of IT, our first thought is usually not empathy. But, by prioritizing empathy across an organization, the result is a higher level of listening versus telling, and a higher ratio of doing versus saying. To better empathize with our customers, we adjusted our organization structure by embedding IT resources within the business. This allows us to take a more holistic approach to interact with business stakeholders at multiple tiers of the organization. We also can inject business vocabulary and sentiments into product development as well as enhance the digital savviness of our business leaders. This results in faster and more successful digital transformation, rather than just fulfilling short-term business needs.

Finding a balance in digital transformation

The empathetic approach works, but it comes with its challenges. IT's mindset is rooted in technology. We constantly work to bolster customer partnership and better understand our business functions and pain points, but we also have an innate fascination with technology and its advances. The dilemma is in finding the right balance between solving problems to create an immediate impact and exploring new innovative or transformational opportunities. 

When we think of IT from a business perspective, we not only interact with our customers differently, we look at ourselves differently. For example, think of the customer experience. Typically, an IT department's help desk operates in terms of the number of tickets that are submitted and fulfilled each day. But what if the metrics were based on the number of tickets submitted and the quality of resolutions? With that approach, we measure how fast and effective we respond to customers while taking into consideration the quality and sustainability of the solutions we provide.

Transitioning IT’s mindset, from a business supporting function to a business providing digital solutions, is not an easy task. It requires building trust, credibility, and accountability between the business and IT. Doing that, from my experience, involves the following key steps:

  • Understand what your business does successfully, and conversely, what it may be doing unsuccessfully. Take time to meet with all aspects of the business and listen. Once you have a better understanding, you can successfully adapt the processes, tools and culture that, together, make the business successful.
  • Create an IT and business scorecard that is written in a language that business can understand. One of the simplest metrics that we can use is the expected value enabled through completed digital projects. This is our form of revenue, and we provide data on expected value of projects completed to date as well as a forecast for the year. This type of metric is very similar to what business leaders present in their quarterly conference to investors, thus creating alignment and a better understanding of IT.
  • Apply the same disciplines of business to the IT organization. Businesses do not change direction daily, but typically reassess activities and progress on a quarterly or annual basis. IT should adopt the same discipline and timeline of looking at projects and performance. It doesn't mean the IT organization becomes less agile but instead, presents progress reports and shifts in direction in a format and cadence that the business understands. This is where the quality of conversation and a unified vocabulary comes into the picture.
  • Prioritize projects and focus on those that provide a high value to the overall business. Often, a business can say ‘no’ too much, and IT doesn’t say ‘no’ enough. The same prioritization approach seen within a business can be used here. Understand the purpose of each project but prioritize more important or impactful projects to avoid asking for funding on every project. By taking this approach, you are saying, "We are open to doing many things, but we are also open to finishing projects before taking on more."
  • Leave some 'wiggle room' for innovative and experimental projects. These are the ones that may have uncertainty surrounding the use of the technology, the value proposition, and even the adoption. The parameters for projects of this type must be clearly defined to a business review board so that any funding is applied with the mindset that there is a degree of uncertainty.

In conclusion, what I have realized as a CIO is that we need to be intentional about rewriting the DNA of our organization. It's not about technology or projects. It's about how do we rewrite the DNA, to be grounded in the fundamentals of customer obsession, a relentless focus on business value, and the holistic wellbeing of our team members.

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