Business: The Context of IT

I would estimate that the vast majority of people working in the IT field come to it out of an interest in or even a passion for computers. Working in IT lets them play with many big, fast, powerful computers, networks, storage devices and more.  It’s fun.  It’s exciting.  We tend to love gadgets and technical toys.  We love overseeing the roaring server room or datacenter.  This is, almost universally, true of IT people everywhere in the industry.

Because of this somewhat unnatural means by which people are introduced to IT as a career we are left with some issues that are not exactly unique to IT but that are, at the very least, relatively extreme in it.  Primarily the issue that we face, as an industry and especially within the SMB portion of the industry, is a lack of business context within our view of IT.

IT exists only with a business context, this is crucial for understanding all aspects of IT.  Without a business to support, IT would not be IT at all but would just be “playing with computers.”  Other departments that are directly tied to business support such as finance, accounting, human resources, legal, etc. have far more typical business involvement and less “inwardly focused interest” so that they tend to not lose focus on their role in supporting the business environment in everything that they do.  But IT is often so far removed from the business itself, at least mentally, that it is easy to begin to think that IT exists for its own sake.  But it does not.

Moreso than nearly any other department IT is and must be an integral part of the business.  IT has some of the deepest and broadest insight into the business and is invaluable as a partner with management in this aspect.  Everything that happens in IT must be considered within the context of, and in regards to the needs of, the business.

Of course there are roles within IT, within any department, that can function essentially completely without understanding the context of the business that they are supporting.  Job roles that are highly structured and rely on procedure rather than decision making can often get away without even knowing what the business does let alone considering its needs.  But once any role in IT moves into an advisement or decision making one, the business is the core focus.  In reality, the business is the only focus.  IT is an enabler of business, if it is not enabling the business, what is it doing?  Because of this we must remain ever cognizant of the business reasonings behind all decision making and planning.

This cannot be overstated: The primary role of IT is a business one, not a technical one.

IT needs to think about the business at every turn.  Every decision should be made with a keen sense of how it impacts the business in efficiency, cost effectiveness, etc. It is so easy, especially when working with other IT staff from other companies, to lose this perspective and begin to think that there are stock answers, that there are accepted “it should be done this way” approaches, that IT should dictate what is best for the business from an IT perspective.

These concepts become especially poignant when we talk about areas of risk.  It is commonly an IT perspective to think of risk as something that must be overcome, but a business perspective is to balance risk against the cost of mitigation.  If left to run on their own without oversight, most IT departments would see the business as so critical that any amount of money should be spent on a “better” IT infrastructure in order to make sure that downtime could never happen.  But this is completely wrong.  “Better” should never be associated with uptime, it should be associated with “what best serves the goals of the business.”  Perhaps that is uptime, perhaps it is a lowering of capital expenses: it depends on the unique business scenario. Often what is best for the business is not what is perceived as being best for IT.

Concepts such as “the business cannot go down” or “cost is no object” have no place in a business, and therefore cannot in IT.  Every business has a cost of uptime threshold where it is more cost effective to be done.  No IT project has cost as no object, in a business cost is always an object.

What IT needs to do is learn to think differently.  The needs of the business should be at the forefront of IT concepts of what is good and what is applicable.  The idea that there is a “proper or best level of protection” for a system should never even occur to IT decision makers.  Instead, IT should immediately think about value to the business, cost of downtime, cost of risk mitigation and make decisions based around the value to the business.

Thinking about “business first” or really “business only” can be a struggle for IT staff that come to IT from a technology perspective instead of from a business one, but it is a critical skill and will fundamentally change the approach and effectiveness of an IT department.

Businesses need to look for IT staff in decision making and guidance roles that have a firm understanding or and interest in business and can consistently maintain their IT work within that perspective.

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