19 Feb Are your business and technology goals aligned?
Is your business using technology efficiently? Protecting customer information? Upgrading major software applications? More importantly, is there strong communication inside your business so that you know that technology decisions are being made with business needs in mind?
Businesses are becoming increasingly dependent on information technology (IT) to become more efficient, manage risks, or even just to operate. But for IT to help, not hinder, a company in growing and transforming its operations, there must be a strong alignment between IT and business leaders.
“When [IT leaders] become effective is when they understand the business, and they proactively are producing solutions and technology and approaches to fixing business problems,” said David Wittwer, CEO of TDS Telecom. “They are part of the solution as opposed to waiting for an order.”
TDS has created an IT “blueprint” that lays out a strategy for using technology to help the company grow and succeed. Rather than letting individual IT projects proceed in a vacuum – isolated from each other and from business needs – the company is keeping users and implementers aware of how the pieces fit together into a valuable whole.
Another local company with a formal process for technology innovation is American Family Insurance, which invites IT employees to propose innovative ideas and gives the best ideas some funding and 100 to 150 person-hours to develop an example. The company’s conversion from all-paper to all-electronic applications came out of this process.
“We encourage our technical staff to take risks, but safe risks,” said Byrne Chapman, chief information officer of American Family. “Basically, we ask them to invent ways for IT to drive business value.”
This innovation program has been so effective that the company is considering rolling it out for the entire company, not just IT.
Beyond high-level programs or strategies, it’s equally important to make sure that the lines of communication remain clear between the technology professionals and the business people who will be using the system they create. Each group has their own jargon, whether it is packets and ports or business’ billing cycles, risk management, or compliance issues.
“Great IT projects are just like any other great project. There has to be a lot of plain talk,” said Leslie Hearn, CIO of TDS Telecom, who led the creation of the company’s IT blueprint. “You’re bringing people together who use a whole different vocabulary from day to day.”
Another way to keep people inside the business informed and in touch is to break IT projects down and roll them out in stages. Area executives advise business and technology planners alike to beware the concept of a “big bang” solution that takes a lot of time and resources and is meant to have a huge impact. The risk of implementing such projects is high. Even if they go well, changing many processes at once can have unexpected effects on the business.
“Our users [are] pretty accepting of an implementation where they see new functions, new features, quarterly,” Chapman said.
Users are the owners
Whatever process you use, both business and IT leaders need to be involved.
Executives can improve their company’s ability to make good IT decisions by making sure technology professionals are on board with the company’s vision. And IT managers can go beyond their own understanding of a business problem by getting the business users involved — as early as possible — when it comes time to make a decision about technology that affects day-to-day business.
“The users must own the decision,” said Peter Strombom, CIO of Meriter Hospital in Madison. “They must be very involved in making that decision and they must own it.”
Previous articles by Mike Klein
• Mike Klein: Protecting your business against online brand abuse
• Mike Klein: Will technology improve healthcare delivery?
• Mike Klein: A missing link in innovation
• Mike Klein: Are you a citizen of the “Google Nation?”