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Issue Date: September 2007

Trust me, I am in IT

September 2007

I find it worrying on so many levels that when I work with IT managers and departments in connection with their strategy, alignment, budgets, organisation and, oh just about anything else, the discussion almost always comes round to trust and partnership.

At a recent breakfast, the topic was: 'Achieving Business Alignment' and Ivo Vegter asked the question as to why alignment did not seem to be a problem between business and finance, or marketing, or HR, or indeed anyone else except IT. Good question. And one which is borne out by my personal experience in the many organisations I work with.
Terry White
Terry White
Why is alignment such a problem between IT and 'the rest'? At this breakfast, I had an opportunity to say my bit, and I told the audience of research that I had done, in which business expectations of IT are that 20% of their activity should be directed at delivering the IT, 60% at delivering real business improvements and that 20% of their activity should be in IT leadership - new products, channels and marketing using IT. The thing that gave me a clue as to why business alignment remains such an elusive issue for IT, is that I saw, in the largely IT-based audience, many heads shaking in disagreement as I outlined these business expectations of IT. There we have the root cause of the IT/business alignment, trust, partnership, conundrum: IT does not believe that they should be doing what business wants them to do.
So the IT people, who have their salaries paid by their business, do not believe that they should do what their business wants them to do.
This is worrying. If I hired a bunch of people to do a job, and they do not do what I expect them to do, there is little doubt in my mind that there will be misalignment and lack of trust between the parties. And if I was running a business using people and technologies that I absolutely knew I needed, but that I could not trust, I would spend a hell of a lot of my time checking up on them, blocking their budgets until I understood them better, and frankly sidelining them. (Sound familiar?)
It is of course never as simple as IT people just doing what business wants them to do. In the same way that if you hire a bus driver, pack the bus with children and tell the driver to drive over that cliff there, the driver should raise his objections and refuse to play a part in the impending disaster. So IT should be aware of business expectations, and if unrealistic or downright dangerous, they should do something else. But it is a delicate dance that requires clarity and excellent communication.
There is no doubt that IT is mandated to deliver the technology that keeps the business running. But business expects them to do this with a lot less fuss than they currently make about it. The business mindset is that the delivery of the technology is a hygiene factor - akin to keeping the lights on and the toilets working.
Now we in IT know that IT is complex and constantly changing, so we have to spent a lot of time in the 'engine room' making sure that everything works as it should. But we should also take cognisance of business expectations that we spend a small portion of our energies in this area. We should be automating this operational activity to the nth degree, should outsource or in-source the activity to operational experts, and should concentrate to the management of the operational activity, rather than the doing of the activity - that is the business expectation. If we succeed in clearing our decks of operational fire fighting, we might be able to spend more time in the 'improving business results' domain and the IT leadership domain.
Which brings me back to trust: I often draw a triangle when I describe trust, and at each point of the triangle, I put these three words - competence, commitment and goodwill. That, to my mind is what creates trust. IT need to demonstrate their competence to perform the work for which they are being paid; they need to demonstrably meet their commitments (contracted or merely expected); and they need to do this in a sustained fashion to build up goodwill.
But this triangle gets us into a deeper discussion - what competencies does the business expect IT to demonstrate? Yes sure, they need to have technological competence, but business also expects business competence as well. They need to understand enough about business so that they can make meaningful contributions to business improvements, and they need to demonstrate leadership competence from an IT perspective. As one CEO said to me: "These IT guys are the only ones who know enough about the pros and cons of IT that they can decipher the technology at a board level." Business lacks this technological perspective, they admit that - but they want this perspective to be brought to bear at a leadership and strategic level, rather than at an operational level. (Discussions on the next ERP release bores business rigid).
So the competence that business expects IT to demonstrate is at a business and strategic level - the IT stuff is assumed, in the same way we expect a qualified engineer to know her discipline sufficiently to solve business problems - it is a given. And maybe CIOs need to be looking long and hard at their department's competence profile - with technological skills being a given, and business and strategic skills being at a premium.
Meeting commitments is another area for mistrust. If IT thinks that their SLA with their business is anything more than the paper on which their real commitment to the business is written, then they have misread business expectations. Business expects much, much more than a slavish meeting of SLAs. They expect IT to meet the implied commitment that IT is good for the business, and is constantly striving to make the business work better. Business has an unstated expectation that IT is on their side, and are always ready to take on new challenges or if necessary to tighten their belts without complaint. They have an unspoken expectation that IT understands their business and customers and the conditions in which they operate and that IT will respond to business pressures as an integral part of their business. And there are many other implied commitments that business expects from IT - the trick for the CIO is often to make the implicit explicit for both their people and for their business. This requires some deep thinking, and good communication.
Finally, goodwill is all about sustainability - IT needs to meet business expectations and deliver the goods again and again. Only once IT have developed a track record of having the required competence and meeting business expectations, can they expect to gain business trust. And only once they have gained business trust, can they question whether business expectations of them should be rearranged to more realistic ideals.
So trust, and alignment, and business partnership is a chicken and egg situation. IT needs to demonstrate their competence and commitment before they can question whether this competence and commitment is the right thing for the business to expect. No-one said it would be easy. And the fact that we are discussing this 40 years after IT became a central element of doing business, demonstrates that we have not got it right yet.

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