Bob Lewis

The ‘IT Business Office’: Doing IT’s admin work right

Sep 05, 20235 mins
IT Strategy

Don’t run IT like a business. Do run it in a businesslike way. Establishing an administrative group within IT can help alleviate IT’s bureaucratic burden.

Stressed businessman overwhelmed by work, he is drowning under a lot of paperwork and answering phone calls
Credit: Stokkete / Shutterstock

Among the unenlightened, running IT “like a business” is supposed to be best practice, delivering goods and services to internal customers who IT must fully satisfy, and who then pay for what IT delivers to them through the auspices of a charge-back system.

As has been pointed out in this space numerous times (for example, here), this is a terrible idea.

What isn’t a terrible idea: being businesslike — that is, being professional about addressing IT’s organizational obligations, which are both essential and tangential to its core mission.

IT managers typically consider these responsibilities, which fall under the rubric of “administrivia,” to be time-sucking distractions. They want to focus on delivering, integrating, and managing the company’s applications portfolio, and on making sure IT’s infrastructure is fully available and delivering proper performance.

In other words, it’s IT Apps and Ops — the heart of what IT does for a living. Everything else matters but doesn’t add its own value to the equation.

Enter the ‘IT Business Office’

Wise CIOs don’t try to argue that handling administrivia is valuable; time well spent and not a distraction at all. They don’t try because all they’d accomplish by making this claim would be to lose credibility.

By the same token these same CIOs also don’t agree that administrivia adds no value. They shouldn’t agree because, while aggravating, these responsibilities can’t be dispensed with — they represent real work that really must get done.

Which is why many wise CIOs create an IT Business Office and make it responsible for alleviating the administrative burden for the IT organization, taking on responsibilities like the following:

IT’s performance metrics and reporting systems: Doing metrics right isn’t easy. Just formulating them well takes a lot of effort. Add to that the reporting systems IT managers need so their metrics are more than just ad hoc statistics computed via unaudited spreadsheets. And then, figure in what’s needed so the metrics used by different managers make sense together.

Each IT process steward (the synonym for “manager”) still needs to be responsible for defining their key process metrics, on the grounds that if they’re responsible for a process they’re responsible for defining the metrics that gauge process health.

But asking them to make sure their metrics integrate with everyone else’s metrics is asking too much. Coordination is the IT Business Office’s raison d’être.

Vendor negotiations and contracts: Negotiating is both skill and art. Analyzing contract terms and conditions is more so. Monitoring a vendor’s compliance? That shouldn’t be an afterthought — someone needs to be responsible.

In theory this should all be handled in the General Counsel’s office. But while the company’s legal staff are its experts when it comes to analyzing contracts, they aren’t its experts in the subject matter that IT’s vendor contracts and license agreements govern.

So vendor negotiations and contracts must be a collaboration between IT and the General Counsel, with IT’s Business Office taking the lead.

Overseeing the IT budgeting process: Each IT manager has a budget to manage to. Sadly, in most companies budgeting looks more like a game of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey than a well defined and consistent algorithm.

In principle, a lot of IT staffing can be derived from a parameter-driven model. This can be hard to reconcile with Accounting’s requirements for budget development. With an IT Business Office to manage the relationship with Accounting, IT can explain its methods once, instead of manager-by-manager-by-manager.

Coordinating new-employee onboarding: Business-wide, new-employee onboarding should be coordinated by HR, but more often each piece of the onboarding puzzle is left to the department responsible for that piece.

An IT Business Office can’t and shouldn’t try to fix this often-broken process throughout the enterprise. But onboarding new IT employees is, if anything, even more complicated than onboarding anyone else’s employees. An IT Business Office can, if nothing else, smooth things out for newly hired IT professionals so they can start to work the day they show up for work.

Coordinating the employee performance review process: Nobody likes the employee performance management (aka “performance review”) process. Not the manager who has to deliver the assessment; not the employees who have to receive them; not HR that has to make the process work enterprise wide.

And every time HR shovels in the coming year’s improvement to this process, everyone hates the result even more.

It’s another broken enterprise process an IT Business Office can’t fix. But it can, at least, establish the schedule, familiarize all IT managers in how it’s supposed to be done, and process-manage it to fruition.

Who should run the show?

To the cynical, establishing an IT Business Office might look like the CIO is dumping every management headache into one sorry spot.

But that is demonstrably untrue, because if that was the case the IT Business Office would be responsible for technical architecture management, too.

Still and all, it sure does look like Excedrin Central.

But it doesn’t have to be, because there are some managers who thrive on a diet of organizing this sort of chaos and keeping it organized.

As CIO, your job is to find that sort of manager, and to give them enough teeth to make sure everyone else can’t procrastinate their contributions to death.

Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis is a senior management and IT consultant, focusing on IT and business organizational effectiveness, strategy-to-action planning, and business/IT integration. And yes, of course, he is Digital. He can also be found on his blog, Keep the Joint Running.