Jan 01 2006

Earning Respect for IT

Do end users think your company's systems and IT team are a necessary evil? Then prove their value by making changes in how they serve users.

Information Technology shouldn't be a buried or mysterious component of any business. It's just another business function, and we — as IT professionals — have to get rid of the cloak-and-dagger mystique that has built up around IT.


If your company needs to transform its IT image, start by culling the backlog of projects, get friendly with your users and figure out how to make IT part of the business' strategic plan.


Most people view IT as a black hole where it takes months for anything to get out. When I started with Celina Insurance seven years ago, IT had earned a bad reputation by taking its time getting things done and not making processes transparent to other parts of the organization. If that's the situation where you work, show your colleagues that IT is responsive.



Pay the Price


Admittedly, there's a cost to attaining perfection, but it typically won't outweigh the benefit of getting a project completed and into the hands of users. We started our transformation by prioritizing our projects and improving turnaround one project at a time. I've found that you can still get a 90 percent value boost in a project even if you reduce time spent on it by 20 percent.


Another critical step requires everyone sitting down and talking about the end goal: What business problems should the project solve? What are we trying to accomplish?


If the relationship between the IT team and other parts of the organization is already tense, there will be some finger-pointing. Get over it. IT and end users must share accountability for the situation. It took my company awhile, but now we've established that there will be times when IT drives business decisions and times when we follow. Making accountability decisions is more an art than a science, and your company's management team will get better at these determinations over time.


An IT team can provide a company with numerous advantages, but only if it knows the business. It can force the business to change its habits for the better once it finds out what works and accelerates those functions. For instance, at my company we looked at a lot of ways to get the agents to use Web applications and even considered withholding commission checks. But we found that the only lure necessary was to explain to the agents that the new apps would help them satisfy their customers. In this case, IT improved our business because the systems team and the end users communicated, listened to one another and thought through the business challenges together.


IT must be a strategic partner in the business mission. It can't be buried under the CFO or some other midlevel chief. The IT department needs to stand on its own merits and the only way to do that is for the CIO to report directly to the chief executive. If IT is not treated like a critical business function, and if the CIO's not communicating with the person who runs the operation, your company can't get the most benefit from its systems operations. It's just that simple.


Rob Shoenfelt is CIO of Celina Insurance in Celina, Ohio.