The level and nature of engagement between IT and the rest of the business has long been a challenge for CIOs. IT departments are often separated from their colleagues in other business functions as a result of what they do, how they work and even the language they use. As a CIO I witnessed countless meetings between IT staff and people from other departments go wrong purely down to language; sometimes this was caused by the overuse of technical terms whilst at other times it was simply due to a different interpretation of day-to-day words.

On one such occasion, I was asked to chair a meeting to review progress on a project to build mobile solutions for field-based staff. The discussion became difficult and at times heated when the timing of, and responsibilities for, implementation was raised. It turned out that the two parties (IT and operations) had different understandings of what the word “implementation” meant. For the IT team, implementation was followed by deployment, whereas for the operations staff implementation included deployment. Once we identified this was the issue the tension was diffused and the meeting carried on without any further issues. A simple but valuable lesson for all involved and one that showed the importance of using terms that everyone understands.

Many IT departments have implemented standards such as Prince and ITIL to establish a more structured approach to providing services to the rest of the business. Often, and perhaps due to a misunderstanding of the relevant standards, the outcome of adopting these methodologies has been an inflexible IT function that was more focused on following the process than on the business outcome it produces. Rather than improving the service provided to the rest of the business, these standards often had a negative impact on service and, perhaps more importantly, the experience and perception, of the rest of the business. “Have you logged a call?” or “call the service desk” became a standard response from IT staff when approached by someone from another function. And so, not surprisingly, IT functions developed a reputation of being slow, non-responsive and out-of-touch with the rest of the business.

Many CIOs have employed relationship managers to overcome these issues and to provide another route into the IT function. Relationship managers spend time with their internal customers to get to know their part of the business, understand their issues and needs, and report these back to the IT function They are also a point of escalation when service levels are not met. In larger organisations relationship managers may even sit on the management team, or at least attend the management meetings, of the business units to which they are assigned. They are a good solution and, if implemented correctly with the right type of person and support, they can be a very effective way of improving the level of alignment and engagement between IT and the rest of the business.

But the impact of relationship managers is limited if the rest of the IT function continues to function in the same way; sticking rigidly to process and standards, using language that is not understood outside of the IT function or, worse still, not communicating or engaging at all with colleagues from other functions. Relationship managers do not exist so that the rest of the IT function can continue to operate in isolation of the rest of the business; they are just the starting point for better alignment and engagement.

More recently some of the more forward thinking CIOs have opened up their service desks to encourage staff to drop-in for help, advice or just a chat about technology. Based on Apple’s Genius Bar concept, the move is aimed at making the IT department more accessible and connected with the rest of the business and also more in line with the experience that employees get when they use technology outside of the workplace. It is another step in the consumerisation of IT; first it was the devices staff used, then it was the apps they used on those devices, and now it is the support they receive that is following the standards set by consumer technology companies. It is a far cry from the days when service desk staff sat in a dedicated office, sometimes behind a locked door, to discourage users from approaching them without first logging a call!

And we have seen CIOs such as Sarah Flannigan at the National Trust (full profile here) introduce ideas such as mandatory work experience, where IT staff have to spend time working away from the head office to learn about the organisation and improve the level of engagement between IT and other functions.

These all are good initiatives that play a role in ensuring the IT department is engaged, aligned and accessible. They are also a way of minimising the level of shadow IT within the organisation. Being engaged, aligned and accessible removes many of the reasons why other business functions would prefer to bypass their IT function and deal directly with technology vendors.

But there is another step; embedding IT resources with the business functions they support.  Embedding IT staff will ensure they are exposed to the challenges, issues and opportunities of the relevant function on a daily basis. Embedded resources can adapt their ways of working to suit the style and preferences of the function they support. As well as creating a more satisfying experience for the relevant functions, it also makes the process of capturing and translating business needs into solutions more effective, and is more likely to produce outcomes that meet the business requirements at the first attempt.

This is something I discuss in my book, Disrupt IT, and arguably represents the ultimate step in IT engagement and alignment. And some CIOs are already doing it; Ralph Munson, CIO at US publisher Hachette, recently announced that he plans to start embedding IT analysts throughout the business. This may make some CIOs nervous but there is much to be gained from embedding resources in addition to better engagement and alignment. Embedded resources also provide a line of communication between the IT function and the rest of the business. CIOs can use these channels to build their knowledge of the issues, challenges and priorities within other areas of the organisation and to lead and influence the thinking of other functions via the embedded resources.

Embedding resources may not be feasible or appropriate for some organisations but the principle remains valid: all IT staff need to be interacting with the rest of the business far more than they have done in the past, they need to be accessible, engaged and business focused. If they are not then IT functions risk being bypassed in favour of vendors that are willing to work alongside the rest of the business.