7 secrets of effective IT departments

EducationSummary: As technology continues to evolve and play a larger role in business, more pressure gets placed on IT. They have an amazing opportunity to drive business and play a larger role than ever before. However, while some IT departments have embraced this role, others are still stuck in maintenance mode. They’re so caught up in putting out fires and keeping the lights on, they don’t have time for innovation. How can these IT departments become more effective? We explore a few methods in this article.

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What’s the difference between effective and ineffective IT departments? Some operate efficiently, while others race around fighting fires, barely keeping their head above water. Some drive the business forward, while others simply keep the lights on…but not much else.

Why?

More than ever, this is an especially important question for modern IT departments. As technology plays a larger role in the business, more pressure will fall on IT departments. As more pressure is placed on the IT department, the need for highly efficient IT departments becomes greater than ever.

This brings us to the original question: What separates the effective IT department from the ineffective? What do efficient IT departments do that slow IT departments don’t do? While I realize that we can’t possibly touch on every reason, here are 7 important traits of effective IT departments.

1. They combine processes with the right tools

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Every IT department needs clearly defined processes and procedures for handling security, user requests, support tickets, etc… They also need tools to support users, communicate, deliver solutions quickly, and more.

The problem is, many IT departments lack one of those two things. They may have well-defined processes and procedures in place, but lack the tools to provide quick solutions. Or, they may have the best tools, but lack the processes needed to execute.

Effective IT departments understand there must be a balance between the two. As explained below, you can’t have one without the other and expect to succeed.

“Slow IT departments are typically filled with several processes and procedures with approvals and are unable to work quickly to provide great service,” says says Ray McKenzie, Founder and Managing Director of Red Beach Advisors. “Processes and procedures are needed to manage IT in large and small companies, but the ability to complete requests is just as important. There must be a balance.”

2. They balance innovation with keeping the lights on

Keeping the lights on

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Over the past few years, the IT department has moved from a business cost to a business driver. Modern IT departments aren’t there to simply keep the lights on. They drive the business technology.

The problem is, many IT departments are struggling to keep up.

“In a recent survey, nearly 90% of respondents agreed their organizations ought to be spending more on innovation,” says Hari Candadai, GVP, Global Product Marketing and Strategy at Rimini Street. “77% said a major obstacle is “spending too much keeping the lights on. The research underscores the importance of rebalancing spending priorities between ‘keeping the lights on’ versus transformational initiatives.”

The most effective IT departments today are those that can walk this line. What’s their secret? As explained below, it starts from the top.

“Shifting dollars toward innovation takes both leadership and technological vision,” explains Candadai. “The innovative CIO must not only find the savings but ensure the money is redirected to innovation initiatives – or it might be spent elsewhere in the organization. Innovation is not easy, but it is worth the effort because only exceptional effort, intelligence, and invention will produce exceptional results.”

3. They reduce “sprawl”

sprawl

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As touched on above, one of the biggest hurdles to innovation is “keeping the lights on.” The problem is, there are more and more lights to keep on. In the digital age, businesses are adopting more software solutions than ever.

That’s just part of the problem. The bigger issue: As software adoption becomes easier (thanks to the cloud), business users are licensing solutions for their own use or use across their department. As you might imagine, this creates redundancies–forcing the IT department to maintain multiple solutions that serve the same purpose.

“IT departments need to reduce ‘sprawl’,” explains McKenzie. “‘Sprawl’ is the addition of several systems, software, or tools that do the same thing, but individual departments maintain their own set of tools. This causes IT departments to have to support many systems, tools, and different software for one organization. More confusion.”

Now, this doesn’t stop with eliminating redundant software. Effective IT departments also deliver multi-purpose solutions that can be used across different departments. This reduces the amount of tools they need to support and lets them place more focus on innovation.

4. They automate everything they can

Automate

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One of the biggest productivity killers across the business world stems from a lack of automation. In companies around the globe, IT departments waste their time performing manual tasks that could (and should) be automated.

What do these processes look like? Here are a few common examples:

  • Manual data re-entry: Employees are stuck manually entering and re-entering data into multiple systems.
  • Paper or email-based workflows: Business processes require a lot of human interaction to complete.
  • Heavy spreadsheet usage: Spreadsheets are required to move data from one system to another, or run reports.

One key difference between ineffective and effective IT departments. The latter automates everything they can.

“From the mundane, to the repetitive, automate as much as you physically can,” says Trave Harmon, Chief Executive Officer of Triton Computer Corporation. “With automation you can focus in on projects, outstanding issues, and things that require more hands-on service.”

5. They recognize that technology never stops moving

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Forrester shared a shocking statistic a few years back: “Seventy percent of the companies that were on the Fortune 1000 list a mere ten years ago have now vanished–unable to adapt to change.”

Think about that. Strong, successful companies fell because they couldn’t (or wouldn’t) alter their course. They didn’t adapt.

In other words, only the agile survive.

Effective IT departments recognize this fact, and set up processes to constantly adapt to new changes. They deploy platforms that allow for rapid solution development. They deliver the ability to pivot quickly as needed. As explained below, they develop new solutions with change in mind.

“IT managers need to recognize that technology is ever-shifting and that they do not need to develop the perfect solution to every problem,” says Alan Zucker, Founding Principal, Project Management Essentials LLC. “IT often approaches projects as if they were building a bridge with an anticipated life. They need to recognize that most applications and technologies will have a very short life and that they only need to be sufficient to meet the expected business need. Agile development methodologies help shift this mindset.”

6. They enable end users

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Effective IT departments view themselves as “technology enablers,” not as “technology gatekeepers.” Rather than try to keep users away from technology, they give users the tools and knowledge needed to solve their own issues. In other words, they help users become self-sufficient.

This focus on creating self-sufficient end users helps IT departments become more effective in a couple of ways. First, it frees up the IT staff for more important tasks. Second–as mentioned below–it helps keep users from bypassing the IT department.

“If IT were able to meet the application demands of its business in a timely manner, users would not look to third party solutions–which they’re doing with greater frequency,” says Tyler Wassell, Software Development Manager at mrc. “To combat this problem, forward-thinking IT departments provide end users with self-service reporting and development tools. It allows users to handle their own basic development and report-writing while allowing IT to maintain security over data and user access. It’s a win-win for IT and the business.”

7. They build communication with the business

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IT departments and the business users often don’t see eye to eye. Poor communication has long been problem between the two. If this problem is so common, why does it still occur? This happens for a couple of reasons.

First, the business users and the IT department often approach problems from different viewpoints. The business users focus on the business results while IT focuses on the technology. When you’re approaching a problem from two separate viewpoints, is there any wonder there’s a communication gap?

Secondly, IT and the business are often located in different places. The IT department might be on a different floor in the building, or in a different building entirely. When both sides don’t even interact on a daily basis, is there any wonder there’s a communication gap?

It starts with leadership. As explained below, effective IT leaders recognize this problem, and take steps to fix it.

“IT and business people are often not cut from the same cloth,” says Zucker. “IT people tend to be more process and detail oriented. Business people are often more outcome oriented and focus less on the details. Many discussions go south from the beginning because the two organizations are talking past each other. IT managers should learn how to listen to and communicate with their business partners. A good first step is this process is understanding the need before responding with an objection.”

Summary

These are just a few secrets of effective IT departments, but there’s plenty more to cover on the topic. Would you add anything to this list? Feel free to comment below!

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