Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The View from IT Mountain

For the first time in my life, I went mountain biking. It was exhilarating, frightening, demanding, and fun. Most of all, it provided a unique view. After a long climb to the top of the mountain we came to the edge of the first trail. I also came to the edge of a clearing where I could see everything - the adjoining mountains, the community where I live, and the remarkable path to the top of a small mountain.

While I paused to catch my breath (which was a good long time), I had a chance to think about the unique view that IT has in any organization.  Much like being at the top of a mountain, IT gets to see everything in an organization: the hills, the valleys, and the paths connecting key centres. No other group in an organization has such breadth. Marketing, finance, manufacturing, and HR have incredibly deep understanding of their own valleys. They might also have a wonderful knowledge of how their department connects with some neighbouring organizations in the adjacent valleys. But they do not see the whole connected picture.

Can anyone connect all the dots?

A truly successful IT organization can see the whole picture. Its job is to work with all facets of the organization to build integrated information flows. The role of IT puts the department in a unique position. A successful IT service transcends organizational boundaries. IT delivers service horizontally across the entire organization enabling it to see all the valleys, all the connections, all barriers, and all the opportunities.

How can organizations leverage the broad IT perspective?

To start with,  IT departments need to view themselves as holistic and systemic process improvement groups. They are not just technologists, but broad integrators who bring together people, process, projects, and technology from across many disparate units to deliver unified systemic change. If an IT organization builds trusted relationships with all its partners, it can leverage  its unique perspective through these relations into a powerful wellspring of change for everyone in the organization.

Does IT need help walking to the top of the mountain?

To succeed, organizations cannot bury the IT department at a low level in the organization. Reporting needs to be at the most senior levels in the organization. High level reporting responsibility enables IT to move customer initiatives from a technology focus to a business focus. IT applies the force of broad horizontal connectivity to topple the vertical silos of political dysfunction.

Is simply changing structure enough?

Structure does not change organizations, people do. But people cannot do it without process. IT needs models for benchmarking processes, re-engineering techniques, and process design. Typically IT departments live with these tools on a day-to-day basis and have more experience with them than any other group. The trick is for IT to leverage these tools into integrated agents of progressive change - a series of progressive changes that improves life for customers, staff, shareholders, and the community. The changes succeed when IT's partners adopt and implement processes, such as a common project management discipline, to deliver projects. The spirit of mutuality of interest leads to real success in the implementation of enterprise IT.

IT is horizontal, everyone else is vertical. 

If you keep this horizontal/vertical perspective in mind, you will realize the unique value of IT: a way of integrating enterprise-wide processes into unified and holistic processes. These processes become sustainable competitive advantages for the entire organization. 

Climbing to the top of the mountain is a lot of work. But the view is spectacular. 


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