Keeping IT in Context

Information Technology doesn’t exist in a bubble, it exists to serve a business or organization (for profit, non-profit, government, etc.)  The entity which we, as IT professionals, serve provides the context for IT.  Without this context IT changes, it becomes just “technology.”

One of the biggest mistakes that I see when dealing with companies of all sizes is the proclivity for IT professionals to forget the context in which they are working and start behaving in one of two ways.  First forgetting context completely and leaving IT for “hobbyist land” and looking at the technologies and equipment that we use purely as toys for the enjoyment and fulfillment of the IT department itself without consideration for the business.  The second is treating the business as generic instead of respecting that every business has unique needs and IT must adapt to the environment which it is in.

The first problem, the hobbyist problem, is the natural extension of the route through which most IT Professionals arrive in IT – they love working on computers and would do so on their own, at home, whether they were paid to do so or not.  This brings often a lifetime of “tech for the sake of tech” feeling to an IT Pro and is nearly universal in the field.  Few other professionals find themselves so universally drawn to what they do that they would do it paid or not.  But this shared experience creates a culture of often forgetting that the IT department exists within the context of a specific corporate entity or business unit and that its mandate exists only within that context.

The second problem stems, most likely, from broad IT and business training that focuses heavily on rules of thumb and best practices which, generally, require “common scenarios” as these are easy to teach by rote and leave out the difficult pieces of problem analysis and system design.  Custom tailoring not only solutions but IT thinking to the context of a specific business with specific needs is difficult and requires learning a lot about the business itself and a lot of thought to put IT into the context of the business specifically.

The fault does not necessarily lie with IT alone.  Business often treat their IT departments as nothing but hobbyists and focus far too heavily on technical and not business skills and often keep IT at arm’s length forgetting that IT has some of the most important business insight as they tend to cross all company boundaries.  IT needs deep access to business processes, workflows, plus planning and goals to be able to provide good advisement to the business but is often treated as if this information is not needed.  Businesses, especially smaller ones, tend to think of IT as a magic box with a set budget that money goes in and network plumbing comes out.  Print and radio ads promote this thinking.  IT as a product is poor business thinking.

In the defense of the business, IT operates in a way that few businesses are really prepared to handle.  IT is a cost center in that there is a base cost needed to keep any company functioning.  But beyond this, IT can be an opportunity center in most businesses, but this requires both IT and the business to work together to create these opportunities and even moreso to leverage them.

IT is often put in the inappropriate position of being forced to justify its own existence.  This is nonsensical as human resources, accounting, legal, management, janitorial, sales, marketing and production departments are never asked to demonstrate their financial viability.  Needing to do so puts an unfair strain on the IT department requiring non-business people to present business cases and wastes resources and hampers thinking in a vain attempt at producing pointless metrics.  This is a flaw in business thinking often caused by a rift between management and the people that they’ve hired to support them.  The relationship is often cold or even adversarial or cursory when it should be close and involved.  IT should be sitting at the decision table, it brings insight and it needs insight.

One of the biggest challenges that IT faces is that it is often in a position of needing to convince the business to do what is in the business’ own best interest.  This is, for the most part, a flaw in business thinking.  The business should not demand to stand in a position of doing the wrong thing and only be willing to do the right thing if it can be “sold” to them.  This is a fundamental flaw in approach.  It should be a process of good decision making, not starting from bad decision making unless being convinced otherwise.  Other departments are not presented with a similar challenge.  What other department regularly has to mount a campaign to request necessary resources?

Due to this challenge in constantly fighting for management attention and resources, IT needs to develop internal business skills in order to cope.  This is a reality of most IT departments today.  The ability not only to keep the business that they support in context and to make IT decisions based on this context but then be able to act as marketing and sales people taking these decisions and delivering them to the business in a manner similar to how outside vendors and salespeople would do is critical.  Outside vendors are sending skilled sales people and negotiators to the business in an attempt to do an end run around IT, IT needs the same skills (with the advantage of insider knowledge and the obvious advantage of having the best interest of the business) in order to demonstrate to the business why their solutions, opportunities and needs are important for consideration.

Having good interpersonal, writing and presentation skills is not enough, of course.  Knowing business context and leveraging it efficiently includes understanding factors such as risk, opportunity, loss, profit and being able to apply these to the relationship between the businesses’ IT investments and the bottom line.  Often IT Pros will be frustrated when the business is unwilling to invest in a solution that they present but forget that the business is considering (we hope) the total cost of ownership and the impact on the company’s bottom line.  When asked how the solution will save money or generate revenue, even indirectly, often, at best, the answers are vague and lack metrics.  Before going to the business with solutions, IT departments need to vet recommendations internally and ask tough questions like:

How does this solution save money today?  Or how does it make us more money?
How much money is it expected to save or earn?
What business problem are we attempting to solve? (What itch are we trying to scratch?)
What risks do we take on or reduce?

Or similar lines of thinking.  Instead of bringing technology to the business, bring solutions.  Identify problems or opportunity and present a case.  Role play and imagine yourself as a business owner disinterested in a solution.  Would you feel that the investment requested is a good one?  Too often we in IT like a solution because it is advanced, complex, “the right way to do it”, because another company is doing it, because it is the hot trend in IT and often we have very good reasons for wanting to bring these techniques or technologies into our workplace but forget that they may not apply or apply well to the business as it is and its financial capabilities or the business roadmap.

When I speak to IT professionals looking for advice on a system design or approach my first question is pretty universally: “What business need are you attempting to solve?”  Often this question is met with silence.  The business had not been considered in the selection of the solution being presented.  Regularly bringing requests or solutions to the business that do not take into consideration the context of the IT department within the business will rapidly train business decisions makers to distrust the advice coming from the IT department.  Not that they would feel that the advice is intentionally skewed but they, and often rightfully so, will suspect that the decisions are being brought forward from a technical basis alone and isolated from the concerns of the business.  Once this distrust is in place it is difficult to return to a healthier relationship.

Making the IT department continuously act within the context of the business that it serves, encouraging IT to pursue business skills and to approach the business for information and insight and making the business see IT as a partner and supporter with whom information must be shared and insight should be gathered can be a tall order.  The business is not likely to take the first step in improving the interaction.  It is often up to IT to demonstrate that it is considering the needs of the business, often moreso than the business itself, and considering the potential financial impact or benefit of its decisions and recommendations.  There is much to be gained from this process, but it is not an easy process

It is important to remember that the need for IT to keep business context is crucial, to some degree, for all members of the IT team, especially those making recommendations, but the ability to judge business need, understand high level workflows, understand financial ramifications, seek opportunity is a combination of IT management (CIO, Dir. of IT, etc.) and the IT department as a whole.  Many non-managerial technical members need not panic and feel that their lack of holistic business vision and acumen will keep them from adequately performing their role within the business context, but it does limit their ability to provide meaningful guidance to the business outside of extremely limited scopes.  Even common job roles, such as deskside support, need to have some understanding of the fiscal responsibilities of the IT department however, such as recognizing when the cost of fixing a low cost component may far exceed the cost of replacing the component with one that is new and, potentially, better.

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