As an IT community we've spent the last 10 years evolving from a reactive service provider mode to that of proactive solutions provider; however the real challenge facing the 21st Century CIO is to embed your IT operation wholeheartedly within the wider organisation and to become the trusted business partner.
Why does being a partner really matter? In a nutshell it delivers better quality results in an environment with broad organisations goals and cross-functional teams.
As many of you will recognise, especially in the private sector, increasingly IT is becoming a revenue stream in its own right and not just for technology companies. This was very noticeable in a recent TV interview with the CEO of a large British services company who described her business as rapidly becoming a "tech company". In many sectors, digital is all invasive and can no longer be viewed as an enabler to doing business, but the very way of doing business itself. For example, the technologies used by a footwear manufacturer that enables a consumer to custom-design their own shoes becomes as much part of the brand experience being bought as the physical product eventually delivered. As such the challenge upon IT leaders and IT professionals to evolve and adapt demands a markedly different tool kit of skills.
Whether your organisation's shifting from a products to services portfolio, growing its eCommerce portal solutions or simply demanding more value from your IT function the enabling skills IT departments need are changing. CIOs and teams will need to borrow established techniques from the sales, marketing or consumer-facing communities to enhance their tool kit. In turn this will aid your day to day interaction, whether it's with your own board, in programme leadership roles or more operational IT matters.
Business partnering skills:
1. Get to know your business partners
This doesn't necessarily mean knowing the names of their children or their favourite hobbies although that will certainly help build a stronger personal relationship. In this context it's about understanding that everyone within your organisation is motivated by different things and in turn has different ‘hot spots' and ‘buttons that you can press. Your Sales Director for example will be enthused by solutions that get to the heart of their agenda and by really understanding their priorities, challenges, demands and expectations in a level of detail means you and your team and really embrace the opportunities before you.
This thorough understanding of your partner's demands and goals in turn this will aid you during challenging times or after technology incidents when you need to call upon compatriots.
A more traditional services-driven approach would put IT in the driving seat when it comes to deliveries often in a linear fashion but a business partnership approach will focus on potentially smaller deliverables, delivered with an enhanced degree of agility that tries to make real difference to your partner and in turn helps then achieve their own strategic imperatives.
2. Adapt your approach
As the CIO it's hugely important for us to ensure that not only ourselves but our teams speak in a wider business language and ditch the tech-babble that we've often accused of. By adopting the first approach of understanding your colleague and then adapting your language accordingly, you may end up creating two or three versions of the same message in order for it to resonate with the intended audience.
The most effective approach with your Marketing Director for example may be to paint a picture of the concepts involved and focus on the bigger picture in terms of how it will assist in their own agenda rather than spending an hours on a process flow diagram and functional checklist which doesn't float their boat!
3. Benefits not features
When were your investments in a new streamlined backup solution or upgrading your network links acknowledged? Maybe you positioned it the wrong way? One top tip from the sale community is to always focus on the ultimate benefit that comes from something. Like the old adage from the shovel salesman "I'm selling a ‘hole' rather than selling an implement that can dig!"
When delivering your messages, even if more foundational ones, make sure you position them from the benefits subsequently experienced. Don't sell the feature but the positive changes your customers will see. Does it make them faster, leaner, safer, reduce risk, reduce cost, aid operational efficiency or simply make people's lives easier?
4. Enhance your business skills
It's worth recognising that the tables are turning when it comes to the kitbag of skills you need. Ask yourself where the real skills in social media lie in your own organisation. Is it within IT or within the brand communications team? But surely, analytics and messaging stuff is an IT thing? Well the trusted business partner embraces this changing landscape with a positive mindset and in turn enhances their own business skills to be able to address wider organisation issues and emerging trends with authority and knowledge.
Clearly, if you have a network administration function within your team it needs to possess strong, proven infrastructure credentials, but their effectiveness as the business partner will see them equally understanding profit and loss principles and the real influence of cost on their partner's operation, have an appreciation for the logistical and supply chain demands and gain a strong awareness of the working environment of their key partners.
5. Enhance your communication skills
Of all the skills the trusted business partner needs to enhance in this brave new world it is communication. Consider ditching your tedious text-only monochrome PowerPoint decks and look for new and engaging means of delivering your important messages such as video, imagery, newsletters, face to face briefings and even social media but make sure you deliver with confidence and panache.
Great communication is a two-way street so calls for effective listening of your partner's wishes, wants and strategic goals and remember. As well as crafting compelling and carefully thought out arguments you need to keep asking yourself how your initiative, programme or solution solves a wider organisation issue or needs.
So, ditch the IT speak, embrace new competencies with confidence, get close to your partners and build that trust – you'll reap the rewards in terms of your personal and team performance and the overall quality of your solutions.
Chris Eversfield has worked in IT leadership positions for the last 20 years, most recently as adidas Group's Senior Director for IT covering Northern Europe before setting up his own boutique firm, Attitude Advisory