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6 Smart Practices For Better Business - IT Alignment

Jun 17, 2022

 

Editor's Note: The challenges of better business-IT alignment are not unique to large corporate environments and studying ways many address these challenges can yield clarity on alignment goals for all sizes of businesses. SD-WAN solutions offer reliable single pane of glass visibility of traffic routing and disparate network cross-departmental communication, empowering leadership to make decisions and implement processes that better facilitate the successful execution of their organizational objectives.

 

Provide your leadership with better tools to address IT obstacles…

Do you wish business executives and IT could work together better,

collaborating on projects and fully sharing information? If you’re like most IT

leaders, the answer is very much yes. The benefits of improved business-IT

collaboration include things such as projects that better fit business goals,

improved change management, and better buy-in for new initiatives.

Not only that, collaborating well with the business is a survival skill for

today’s technology leaders. In 2021, Gartner research showed that more

technologists were being recruited for functions outside IT than within it,

says Darren Topham, senior director analyst at Gartner. Meanwhile, with

easy-to-use, cloud-based, no-code or low-code solutions readily available,

tech-savvy business professionals can handle much of their own technology

without any help at all. “I think CIOs have a real challenge,” Topham says.

“They can no longer afford to try and own the whole IT estate. There has to

be collaboration and dispersal.”

 

It’s clear that increasing collaboration between business and IT should be a

high priority for most tech leaders. But how do you actually make it happen?

Below, five IT leaders share the strategies that have worked for them.

 

1. Ride-alongs

This approach has various names and configurations, but it always involves

IT people spending time observing how their business colleagues perform

their jobs, what tools they use, and how things could be improved.

When Darren Person joined market research company The NPD Group as

global CIO three years ago, he wanted to know how things at the company

operated at the ground level.

Darren Person

 

The NPD Group

“I’ve found when people enter the company at the C-suite level, a lot of them

never really get into the weeds, understanding how a business actually runs

and operates,” he says. That observation applies equally to IT people, focused

on a company’s technology, and to top-level executives who tend to be far

removed from day-to-day work, he says.

 

Because NPD is a data company and Person oversees data architecture, “I

own the factory,” he says. “So I thought it was extra-important that I

understood how it actually worked.”

 

Too many CIOs spend all their time with their attention fixed on the C-suite

and the board, he adds, and only working with one or two levels of direct

reports. “When you make decisions and set strategy, there are a lot of things

that roll downhill to the staff that are not always visible.”

 

Person found that if he went to people’s offices and observed their work, they

would talk to him more freely and he could gain greater insight into their

everyday challenges. He found the process so useful that he formalized it into

a program called “Day in the Life.” Today, all new NPD hires go through this

program, which is a combination of video, meetings, and (before the

pandemic) visits to offices to observe people doing their jobs. Participants

spend anywhere between a few hours and a few days learning how different

areas of the company function. Cohorts of new hires from various areas of

NPD go through this program together, he adds. “So it creates a little bit of

camaraderie with people you wouldn’t normally have that with.”

The biggest benefit is greater collaboration, Person says. “You build these

relationships, you build these connections that maybe you wouldn’t have had

before.” Observing people doing their jobs has also enabled NPD’s

technology experts to make that work more efficient. “A lot of people pointed

out some of the work they were doing in a very manual way,” Person says.

“That opened up a ton of projects where we could create tools to help

support the team. A lot of the work we’re doing now in AI and machine

learning was really driven by those meetings with those individuals.”

 

2. Embedded IT

One way to make sure that IT fully understands the needs of a department or

business unit is to have an IT professional become part of that department or

business unit. He or she might still report to IT, or might report through the

business unit or department but work in close collaboration with IT.

Prithvi Mulchandani

Deltek

This approach has been very successful at project-based software maker

Deltek, according to Prithvi Mulchandani, vice president of IT business

applications. “We have teams across the business with names like Customer

Care Operations or Financial Systems,” he says. “They don’t report to the

CIO, they report to the CFO, and chief customer officer, etc. These are teams

of fairly technical individuals residing within the business.”

 

These employees are hired by the business units, often in consultation with IT.

“Typically, their responsibilities include providing tier-one support to business

users, developing reports, and meeting the analytical and data needs of their

users,” he says. “They will also do more traditional IT projects, for example if

we have a pain point around a certain business process and want to do some

discovery to see if there’s a solution we can buy and implement. They will

play a lead role, at least initially.”

 

3. Reverse-embedded IT

Although embedding IT professionals in business units is more common,

some IT leaders are finding success with the opposite strategy: embedding

business professionals within IT.

 

Mike Vance

Resultant

“I brought someone from the finance team onto my team who didn’t know

IT,” says Mike Vance, executive vice president of professional services at

technology consulting firm Resultant. “That person is now a Scrum master at

a major insurance company. I brought them in because they were hungry,

humble, and smart, and I wanted them to build a relationship with the

business and then translate that back.” Vance has often used this approach,

hiring IT liaisons from other departments such as HR.

 

IT liaison may sound like a business analyst position but it’s really much

more, he says. “The job is to make sure you fully understand what the

business is trying to achieve, and then bring that back and articulate it to IT

because that’s the gap that always happens.” IT liaisons already have

credibility from their contacts in the business because they came from there

and are already very familiar with that area’s functions and challenges.

IT liaisons do have to build credibility with their new IT colleagues. “That

happens as soon as you’re removing barriers for them, making things get out

the door faster,” Vance says. “Or going back to the business to say, ‘Hey, what

you’re asking for is actually a significant change in the way the system is

configured. Can we find another way to get at it?’ Just that in-between work

is really powerful.”

 

4. Cross-functional teams

One of the most familiar, and most effective ways to create collaboration

between business and IT is with cross-functional work teams. These teams

bring together IT professionals with professionals from other areas of the

business to work together on a project or initiative. They can run anywhere

from a month to three months or a year, Topham says, and they always have

a specific objective.

 

This approach is becoming more common and more formalized, Topham

says, with companies beginning to include cross-functional teams within their

organization charts and, increasingly, orchestrating their activities to make

sure employees with specific skill sets are available when and where they’re

needed.

 

In at least some cases, cross-functional teams are becoming a permanent

feature of the business-IT landscape. Before Resultant, Vance was CIO at

Steak n Shake, where he also put IT liaisons in place as he later did at

Resultant. But in that very large organization, he also created Business

Advisory Boards (BABs) in which the IT liaisons met regularly with the

leadership of various functions to talk about their priorities and force rank

those priorities.

 

That put a stop to IT projects being prioritized through informal hallway

conversations, he says. “Because the answer would be, ‘Well that’s number

15 on your list. If you want us to move that up, we can move it up.’” This not

only kept everyone aligned on what the most urgent projects were, it also

helped hold IT accountable, Vance says. “Because you’re talking weekly,

they’re seeing the status of their projects. You might say, ‘Hey, we’re waiting

on you to get back to us on this,’ or ‘That slipped, and here’s why.’” Thus, in

addition to better alignment, the BABs also created greater transparency.

 

5. Training for non-IT people (and vice versa)

One of the best ways to improve alignment and collaboration between

business and IT is for non-IT people to understand technology better. With

that in mind, many companies offer education programs where IT people

teach their non-IT colleagues about the systems that run the business. These

can range from simple “lunch and learn” meetings to formal educational

programs, such as the one at insurance giant Liberty Mutual, which has

created an internal tech literacy program for its non-tech employees.

Andrew Palmer

Liberty Mutual

“It’s a homeroom curriculum that starts with a two-day immersive

foundational program,” says Andrew Palmer, CIO. “We started originally with

our top 100 leaders, but we’ve been expanding it.” So far, about 1,000 Liberty

Mutual executives have taken the program since it began in 2019. More

recently, the company also created a self-paced video version, which it is now

offering to Liberty Mutual employees worldwide.

 

Given its audience, the curriculum is surprisingly advanced. “After they go

through the foundation, we have modules around things like data systems

and insights, security, emerging tech, telematics, and all kinds of deep dives

into these areas. Our goal isn’t to have them walk out coding, but we don’t

want to water it down either,” he says.

 

The impetus for the program came from top executives who recognized that

the 110-year-old company was facing younger, more digital competitors. “We

very quickly learned that a lot of the disruption and innovation was going to

be done at the intersection of business and IT,” Palmer says.

That’s a risk for a large company, he adds, because in tech startups,

everyone thoroughly understands both the business model and the technology

— there is no division between business and IT. “There is a certain base tech

literacy that’s required to communicate across that intersection, and

providing that was the intent of the program,” he says.

 

One immediate result is that Liberty’s business execs understand technology

debt far better than before, Palmer says. “In the past, tech debt was

something that IT would work on in the background and just do it as a night

job. Now we have a much tighter linkage between the business decisions

being made and the cost of running those decisions in the infrastructure.”

That also means business leaders better understand their options for

managing technology costs. They’ve also learned to consider IT capabilities

at every stage of their decision-making. “Our planning discussions are much

richer,” Palmer says.

 

More recently, the company decided to turn the highly popular program

around, creating courses about the insurance business for IT people. That’s

especially valuable, Palmer says, since the company’s digital transformation,

which eliminated many business analyst roles.

“When we moved into an agile framework, we had product owners working

directly with engineers,” he says. “It was really important that the engineers

drive a lot of the problem solving around business opportunities to take that

translator step out, as well as do a lot more of the testing.” The business

literacy program for IT has run a pilot with 40 engineers so far, and will be

rolled out this year, he says.

 

Palmer’s advice to other tech leaders who want to launch education

programs? “Don’t water it down and don’t make it too abstract.” Recognize

that business leaders who thoroughly understand what IT does will make

better partners. “You’re not giving value away — it is not a zero-sum game,”

he says. “And have your senior IT leaders facilitate and be the teachers.

Otherwise, you’ll be missing out on a trust-building opportunity.”

 

6. Full participation in corporate programs and events

AppDirect CIO Pierre-Luc Bisaillion previously served as CIO at Cirque du

Soleil Entertainment Group, the famed circus company’s administrative

headquarters in Montreal, Canada. The company’s 120-person IT department

ran the systems, such as ERP systems and HR systems, that kept the

company going (its performance technology was handled elsewhere).

Pierre-Luc Bisaillion

AppDirect

When Bisaillion first arrived at that job, he found an IT department in need of

an image makeover. “IT was in a bit of a stereotypical situation — you know,

IT in the basement and the WiFi never works. So not a very proud culture or

mindset.”

 

He set about improving things by restructuring the IT department. Where

before, employees had been grouped by their specific functions, such as

business analyst, project manager, or developer, he created dedicated

delivery teams that brought together these roles to serve a specific area of

the business such as HR, Finance, or Creative. That created much greater

transparency, clearer ownership, and prioritization of projects.

 

At the same time, Bisaillion wanted to do something concrete and immediate

to raise IT’s standing within the organization and its own self-esteem.

Halloween was coming up, a time when the corporate group always held a

costumed parade around its headquarters building. “You can imagine that at

Cirque du Soleil, Halloween is a very important event and it’s celebrated

throughout the entire organization,” he says. He decided that the IT

department would participate fully in the parade.

 

Bisaillion and his team settled on Gru and the Minions as a theme that might

make people want to join in. He volunteered to be Gru, which required hours

in a makeup chair. Though he didn’t mandate parade participation, he

ordered enough yellow t-shirts and hats to turn every IT employee into a

Minion. The whole department came out and at the parade IT Minions took

over the stages. They won a prize, he says. “But to me, the best thing I heard

was an employee who said, ‘I’ve been here for 11 years and I’ve never

participated in a Cirque du Soleil Halloween parade before.’ It was about

getting IT together, showing we belonged, that we could deliver something

fun. That built a lot of confidence about what we could do for the business.”

It improved attitudes on the business side as well. “IT was now top of mind,

and not just as people who could do WiFi,” Bisaillion says. “We’re here, we

understand, and we want to be part of this culture.” Slowly, attitudes about

IT began to shift toward the business and IT working better together. “It

didn’t change instantly,” he says. “But it opened the door to building

relationships.”

 

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