- What is your preferred structure for an IT department in an organization like yours in your industry? Why do you prefer that structure and why do you feel it serves the business?
Dale is a leader in a conservative industry and as such he prefers to model IT to maximize profit through the use of technology. “My model is Walmart,” he said. He acknowledged that in his current industry IT can be seen as a cost cutting mechanism, an enabling mechanism, or an innovation engine. He likes to be all three.
He takes a very specific approach to accomplishing this. Dale outsources commoditized pieces of IT and uses business focused professionals in his internal organization. The majority of people in Dale’s model organization are not technical, they are business specialists. Dale was asked in response to this model “What is your preferred mix of technical versus business professionals in your ideal IT shop?” He replied “They all need to be 100% business, even when they are technical.” He wants his entire team to be thinking, providing solutions, and advising the business. “They are our customer,” he said over and over again. Dale noted that the only way to get respect from the business is to challenge the business.
Dale noted that stale thought processes are often driven from conventional structures. One of his points was that IT and the business don’t collaborate on problems. For example, Dale mentioned the cloud. He noted that he doesn’t like his business to even know the cloud exists. “The business doesn’t want the cloud. They want the result!” Dale does not see the cloud as a threat. Rather, what he sees as the threat is that business gets comfortable forming their own solutions without IT. He doesn’t want people to think about the means. He wants all focused on the end itself. Conversations between IT and the business should be about the results, not the road and paths to the results. That is collaborative solutioning to Dale.
Dale likes to present his organization as the best choice in a suite of choices. He sees outside companies as his competitors and likes to position his own organization as the best alternative. “Business is not motivated to deceive IT, they are motivated to bring value to the customer, and IT must be an enabler to that,” Dale emphasized.
When internal IT provides the same solutions as outside vendors they do it with unique comfort to the business, as they are under the same mission statement. All things being equal, internal IT will always be the preference of the business, in Dale’s opinion. It was a good point.
Dale also uses vendors for “elasticity,” meaning scaling to immediate or specialized needs through vendor usage. Dale said he has no hesitation to outsource when vendors can help him serve the business best.
- What are the key areas / strategies / tenets you align with on every initiative to ensure it is aligned with the business?
Every IT person in Dale’s reporting line shares one Management Business Objective (MBO: customer satisfaction. He absolutely wants his teams to act like a business and serve the business like customers. So, he has this goal in every one of his reports’ objectives.
Dale also mentioned that IT should strive to provide a service cost based on the business’ sales units. The business will then understand exactly which IT costs contribute to their per unit expense and can apply levers by offering the customers different options to help manage their costs and corresponding capability. The business can pull these levers when needed. This gives a scaled savings in leveraging internal IT just like they would leverage vendors.
- What are the key indicators you see that repeat themselves through your successful business aligned initiatives?
Dale said he felt aligned with the business when they are inviting IT to their client meetings. “When they are saying to me to come along to a client meeting, I feel there is good synergy.” Dale also likes to be introduced as a member of the business, and not IT, when meeting with clients and partners. This implies that IT has become indistinguishable from the business.
- How do you encourage your teams to stay invested in the business? How do you keep them business focused, and not technology focused?
Dale likes IT to be the “Trusted Advisor.” When asked “How do you get your teams to manifest the trusted advisor status every day?” he responded with “That is a great question.” Dale was ready to provide the answer. Dale prefers a business relationship management person within his technical teams.
Additionally, he presented a strong philosophy: “It is a lot harder to teach a technical person the business, than to teach a business person the technology.” He emphasizes the philosophy that IT provides business services, not technology.
Dale does like it when his teams get exposure to the full portfolio of services that support the business. He noted an example where he sends his developers to sit at the phones to experience the call center. His point was that he wants his entire team in tune and familiar with the business needs.
Dale has also works with leaders to gain support to have an IT person sit with the business units and within team meetings. This way IT is integrated into the routine aspects as well as the more strategic work, where business vision, strategy and needs are presented, discussed, and even developed.
- How do you maximize awareness of IT successfully servicing the business? Up, down and laterally?
Dale mentioned a story of an exchange he had with one of his direct reports. He said he was in the car with this person, and the person had apparently been getting frustrated with Dale’s business focus and serving the business “like a business.” So, the person turned to Dale and boldly exclaimed that if he wanted to do marketing, he would have chosen to go into marketing. He did not want to do it, and that is why he is in IT. In response, Dale said “We are all in marketing. Make no mistake about it. The closet room propeller head developer era is over.”
That is a great point. Dale said IT does so many great things that go unnoticed. So, he does focus on getting the word out. He said he uses many of the same marketing techniques that companies use to market their product or service. The focus is to create the perception of IT as a value add.
- What are the most common barriers to business alignment you have faced repeatedly?
“No” is a very common term used by IT. He has noticed in the past that IT can say “no” a lot. He used a play on words “I want to be the CIO, not the ‘See I ‘No’ ’.”
Dale went on to note that culture can be a barrier. His point was that if historic stereotypes of IT whether they be deserved or not can be an issue. He also noted trust. There are two types of trust: integrity and competency. Dale said IT has to have both. Finally, Dale said IT has to be able to break old habits to succeed.
- If you had to highlight things that you learned from life lessons, what would they be?
Dale noted that the only way to develop a relationship with the business in a way that they are compelled to value IT at the table is to run IT like a business. He has also learned that the industry you are in very much dictates how you should organize IT.
He has also leaned on experiences with very notable organizations where he noticed that a perception within IT developed that the business could not do without IT. “IT was a black box,” he said. He said “IT looked at the business as dependents, not partners.” He fundamentally disagreed with this philosophy. The more he realized this, the more he became a business aligned technology professional.
- Do you have any best practices or tricks of the trade that help you see when technology is being proposed for technology sake?
Dale noted that one of his prime techniques for flushing out tech for tech sake was to have the initiative presented, not as technology, but as a service based initiative, meaning that all of the success metrics are quantified in what service will be provided (not technology). When those are clear, he feels confident. “There is no such thing as an IT project!”
- Do you have any real life stories where you saw a decision moving towards technology for technology sake and you were able to refocus the decision on the business? How did you do this? What were the results?
In his past experiences, Dale mentioned a large project with which the business had asked IT to work with them. Dale noted his team took a “tech for tech sake” approach related to features. IT sat down with the business and went through the requirements, but as an added approach to communicate, IT showed their requirements in a price list format. It was a great experience, as the business could see how the feature requests added up. He witnessed the business themselves negotiating amongst themselves what was really required, and he learned that educating the business and setting them up to make informed decisions is the right thing to do. “We have to be transparent” to build trust and confidence. It is advice all IT professionals can heed.