25 years ago, the corporate IT department was a business innovator, bringing in technology to improve processes and products, to increase efficiency and reduce costs, and to lift personal productivity. In many ways these advancements were easy to deliver as businesses moved from manual to technology-enabled ways of working.
Things are different today. From its previously lofty position, the corporate IT department is now often seen merely as “the people who fix the unreliable IT”, rather than the business innovators of old. Comedy shows such as The IT Crowd and popular comic strips like Dilbert enhanced the common stereotype that IT was there to prevent work, not enhance it.
Many CIOs are now struggling with stakeholder and end-user perceptions. Even as IT has become more important to the business, CIOs can find it difficult to gain support for their initiatives. This can be particularly problematic for those projects related to IT services, workforce devices and support, as these experiences are where most end users find their perceptions of IT shaped.
The root cause of IT’s loss of business status
Is there a single root cause? I don’t think so. Instead there are a number of things that have slowly chipped away at the IT department’s position within the business. These include:
- IT departments contain experts in technology but not necessarily experts in using the technology for competitive advantage. One could also argue that many who work in larger IT organisations, in particular, can struggle to see the business from beyond the IT. They are thus IT-focused - not business-focused - and hence attract that “custodian of the IT infrastructure” tag.
- Businesses have needed to move quickly to remain competitive and profitable. The required speed of business change has far outpaced the official capability of the IT department to keep up. Sadly for many organisations the last 25 years have been littered with stories of IT projects that were delivered late, over budget, and under spec.
- Employees are now far more technology savvy. They might have better IT devices outside of work and most likely receive better support and customer service in their consumer lives too. Sadly, many IT departments have missed the fact that the so-called Consumerisation of IT has been about far more than employees using their personal gadgets in the workplace. Instead it has been about employees’ rising expectations of corporate IT across the board. Add this to the perception that IT is “the department of ‘no’” and you have the open door through which Shadow IT implementations have entered the business.
- IT and individual success is commonly measured in the wrong place – at the point of IT creation rather than at the point of IT consumption. IT might also be measuring the wrong aspects of its performance, or valuing the wrong employee skills and behaviours. This approach focuses improvement effort on the wrong things. On top of this IT has failed to recognise, and deal with, a growing perceptions gap between IT employees and end users.
- Over the years the CIO might have lost his or her place on the board, instead reporting in via the CFO or COO.
Sadly, the loss of status and IT perception issues have been ignored for too long. Some IT departments have kept pace with new demands and requests. Many, however, continue to struggle with the challenges of Shadow IT and BYOD. There are two new challenges to contend with as well: the “consumerisation of service” and the demands of the digital business.
While BYOD and Shadow IT focus on internal IT, these two trends are around the customer experience provided both inside and outside the enterprise. Perception here affects the ongoing success of the IT department and the parent company.
How CIOs and their teams can improve the perceptions of IT through a better customer experience
Firstly, employee consumer-world experiences continue to drive up their expectations of IT and other corporate service providers. The corporate IT department needs to understand how this has affected its role as a service provider. This goes beyond the Consumerisation of IT; and instead covers the whole relationship that the service provider has with the customer, with IT needing to improve the customer experience.
Secondly, IT departments need to put right some of the issues that have slowly chipped away at their relevance within the business. In particular, having an understanding of business strategies and operations, even if relatively basic, needs to be a requirement for every IT role. Induction training should lay the foundations for this and continued education should be considered too.
For more adventurous IT teams, “service safaris” can prove valuable – these involve spending time with business colleagues to get more insight into how IT is really used on a day-to-day basis. This combination of customer insight and business acumen provides more opportunity to demonstrate that IT can understand problems and supply solutions, and the wider IT function benefits from building up more trust with line of business teams.
Dealing with the pace of business change
Today, businesses need to move quickly to remain competitive and profitable, and the required speed of business change is often perceived as exceeding the capability of the IT department to keep up. While some will automatically jump to the conclusion that adopting new approaches such as Agile and DevOps is the answer, it’s more important to first understand the business needs and expectations better, including the required rate of change.
Thankfully the growth in cloud adoption can help to speed up the delivery of projects to meet these new business requirements. So much of the IT perception imbalance can be addressed by a better appreciation of the company environment and the ability to better react to the constantly changing IT and business landscapes. Some of this already exists within many IT teams, but getting this recognised within the business can be difficult without CIO support.
The greater need for IT within most businesses, due to digital strategies or otherwise, will demand a far more responsive and agile corporate IT organisation. By getting out into the business and demonstrating that IT understands its requirements, CIOs can help ensure their teams are at the forefront of future business progress.
Simon Johnson, Director of Operations EMEA, Freshdesk (opens in new tab)
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