CIO Strategies: 5 tips for enabling the business

EducationSummary: The goal of any CIO or IT leader: Enable the business. Provide the business with the solutions they need to accomplish their goals. However, that’s a lot easier said than done. How can CIOs and IT leaders better enable the business? In this article, we explore a few ways to meet this goal.

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Much has been written about the changing role of the CIO. I’ve seen lengthy articles exploring how evolving technology changes IT departments and their value to the company.

However, I recently heard a CIO sum it all up in two sentences: “Our job is to enable the business,” he said. “To the extent that we enable the business, we have greater value.”

It’s so true. The IT department isn’t the back-office function of the past that just kept the lights on. The modern IT department is the business enabler.

That got me thinking: How can CIOs better enable the business?

The answer to that question isn’t straightforward and will vary from business to business. But, there are some approaches that will apply to most businesses. Today, let’s explore a few ways that CIOs can better enable the business.

1. Understand the business goals

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I questioned whether or not to mention this point, as I feel like most IT leaders understand its importance. However, I bring it up for one simple reason: Everything starts here. If you don’t understand the goals of the business, nothing else matters.

Let me explain.

It’s often said there’s a ‘disconnect’ between IT and the business. Why?

Much of it boils down to goals and perspectives. The IT department and business often have different goals. They approach their goals from different perspectives. If two sides have different goals and perspectives (and don’t understand the other side), it’s a stalemate.

The solution: One side needs to change perspective. They need to come at a solution from the other’s point of view.

This is critical for the modern IT leader. If you want to better enable the business, you must understand their goals. You must understand their perspective. Then, as explained below, you can help them meet those goals.

“In order to provide the most value with existing resources and drive innovation, it’s important for IT to first understand the business goals in order to better support them,” says Leigh Espy, IT portfolio manager and owner of ProjectBliss.net. “Business and IT must become partners in exploring and developing solutions to meet business goals.

Whether the goals are to increase sales, improve the customer experience, or increase speed to market, IT can better support those goals when there’s a better understanding and partnership.

This is important because IT may be able to suggest approaches and solutions that the business may not know of or have considered.

Also, IT can also help the business understand new ways of working to help reach their goals. Incorporating business agility practices in the organization can help them innovate faster, providing greater business value.

This is important because it can be difficult to change the culture and ways of working. Understanding the value of new approaches can help the business better appreciate the value of approaching work in new ways.”

2. Eliminate silos

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It’s a common problem. IT departments and the business are often viewed as two separate entities.

“The biggest barrier to IT enabling the business are the organizational and cultural silos that separate the two sides of the business,” says Alan Zucker, Founding Principal, Project Management Essentials LLC. “The fact that we typically draw lines between business and technology is a key symptom of the underlying problem. CIOs and IT leaders must change the way they and their organizations engage with their business partners.”

Now, I realize that correcting this issue is easier said than done. You can’t just snap your fingers and eliminate long-standing barriers between IT and the business.

What can you do? You can start small. Include business users on some IT meetings (when it makes sense) and vice versa. Create processes that expose IT staff to front-line problems. Or, as explained below, adjust your office seating to integrate the two sides.

“Where proximity allows, seat the business and IT teams together,” says Bret Carmichael, Founder of LEAP WORKS. “IT will get a much better sense of what the team is trying to accomplish and where they’re experiencing the most pain. Include business participation in IT stand-ups or agile ceremonies.”

3. Embrace the Shadow IT mindset

By now, you’re likely familiar with the concept of “Shadow IT.” End users bypass the IT department and adopt their own solutions.

I won’t get into all of the reasons why Shadow IT occurs, as it’s a topic I’ve previously covered in a two part article, which you can find here: Part 1 and Part 2.

Today, let’s explore your approach to Shadow IT. Many IT leaders approach it with anger. After all, they spend lots of time and energy managing the company’s technology and data. Then users go around all of that and create security risks. That would upset most people.

While I understand that reaction, let me ask you a question: What approach would best enable the business?

Take a step back and look at the situation through the user’s perspective (remember point #1?). Why are they doing this? Most often, it’s not malicious. They’re trying to solve a problem in the simplest way possible. They haven’t found a way to solve that problem through IT-sanctioned tools, so they’re making a way.

When you look at this way, you realize something: Shadow IT is not the problem, it’s a symptom. The problem usually lies in the fact that the users don’t have the right tools (or don’t think they have the right tools).

If you ask me, I’d rather deal with users who have this mindset than those who just sit around and complain when they don’t have the right tools. These are the people who want to get things done. Help them.

How? Sit down with these users and understand what they’re trying to accomplish. Work with them to find (or get) an IT-sanctioned tool that will meet their needs. Give them self-service tools that let them (securely) build their own solutions, while letting IT control data and user access.

Now, there’s much more to cover on this topic, but there’s not enough room to mention it here. Feel free to check out this article to learn how to deal with Shadow IT the right way.

4. Examine your processes

Businesses often fall into ruts. They get locked into specific processes. These ruts are not only hard to escape from, they’re harmful.

For example, what process must a user follow when requesting IT solutions? How quickly do they receive help? Put yourself in their shoes. Is this an easy process for the user?

It doesn’t stop there. Question all of your processes. Ask yourself, “Why do we do X?” If the answer is, “I’m not sure,” or “we’ve always done that,” it’s time to change.

As you examine your processes, you’ll find they fall into 3 categories:
– Eliminate: Processes that are not helpful and cannot be fixed.
– Keep: Processes that work as they should and cannot be improved.
– Improve: Processes that are inefficient and can be improved through automation. As explained below, automating these processes will often free up your IT department to accomplish more with your current resources.

“CIOs and IT leader are struggling as the number of tasks and values expected from them are growing while very often the amount of resources they have doesn’t grow at the same rate,” says Irit Gillath, VP Marketing, Syslink Xandria. “When analyzing IT time one can see that a large amount is allocated to repetitive mundane tasks such as network and system monitoring and reporting. Putting in place tools that automate monitoring, provide early-detection of issues before they spiral to business and even using machine learning provide suggested solutions, relief the load on IT teams and let them focus their time on innovation.”

5. Take a product design approach to IT

“A culture of innovation needs to be fostered by IT leadership within the IT organization,” says Ian McClarty, President & CEO, PhoenixNAP Global IT Services. “A culture of innovation isn’t afraid of experimentation but has to be balanced with any regulatory and compliance; the overall organization has to follow.”

Now, I’d say that every IT department wants a culture of innovation. So, why doesn’t everyone have it?

Changing the culture is easier said than done. Moving away from a risk-averse culture to an innovation culture isn’t as simple as flipping a switch. It’s a vague goal that will vary by company. Let’s explore a couple of practical ways to become more innovative.

Approach requests from a product design standpoint
How do you approach business requests? Most IT departments look at them like checklist items. Once they meet the request, they move on to the next one.

This article shares a different approach that fosters innovation: Approach business requests as product opportunities. How can you use this solution in other areas? Here’s a great example of this approach from the article:

“It’s easy to make an announcement about creating a culture of innovation, only to have everyone return to the old way of doing things in the day-to-day.

To counter that, the CIO of Service King, a collision repair chain, decided to use the existing IT framework to create a culture of productization over projects. He told his team to examine any business request that came in for product opportunities. What else can you do with the widget one business unit requested? As long as they met the original request, the team was free to innovate, experiment, fail and work with whatever teams necessary.”

Experimentation and feedback
As mentioned above, businesses often fall into ruts. Why? They get caught up in the familiar. They do the things they’ve always done without wondering why.

This mentality won’t enable the business. It will maintain the status quo. As an IT leader, it’s your job to change this mentality.

“Create a learning culture that puts emphasis on rapid experimentation (features and technologies) and tight feedback loops,” says Carmichael.

He brings up a great point. A culture of experimentation requires tight feedback loops. It’s all about trying new things, getting feedback, and adjusting. Without those feedback loops, experimentation doesn’t work.

Summary

These are just a few ways that CIOs can improve business enablement, but the list could be much longer. Would you add anything to this list? Feel free to comment below!

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