How to successfully bring business into IT

It’s a tough time to be a CIO. The widespread glee over consumer technology has created your most demanding customers yet. The ease with which business leaders can adopt cloud services means less clout for your centralized IT structure. And the aging IT workforce means fewer bodies to do the additional work. Masochist that you are, no doubt, you love these new challenges, but you still need tools for dealing with them.

Meet your most powerful weapon in the fight for IT-enabled business value: the technology-savvy business person. If you haven’t begun to entice these exotic animals into your IT lair, you’d best start now. Having business people on your staff will give street cred to your entire IT organization, will teach business acumen to the rest of your people and, when these workers are exported back into the business community, will increase the entire company’s friendliness toward IT.

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Josh Jewett, CIO of Family Dollar, recently reached into his company’s merchandising procurement organization and plucked out a new vice president of business services to head up his business-facing IT teams. He offers some advice:

Pre-empt IT anxiety. 

“It will not be immediately obvious to your IT staff that this is a good idea,” Jewett says. “They will ask a lot of questions like, ‘Why him and not one of us? What does this say about your faith in IT people?'”

While these voices may be in the minority, Jewett still recommends you head off concerns before they arise. “Let your IT staff know, early on, that this presents an opportunity for them to learn new, transferable skills, like effectively communicating IT concepts to business leaders,” says Jewett. “And that those skills will be invaluable throughout the rest of their careers.”

At United Natural Foods, the IT organization has been recruiting relationship managers and analysts from the business for years. But with a new supply-chain-management system in development, they have recently stepped it up, with the blessing of their peers. “Sometimes the business offers up these key resources as a way to assist us in enabling them to be successful,” says Josh Sigel, vice president of operations and innovation at the specialty food distributor. “You can’t get much closer to operations than by bringing in people who have been on the shop floor.”

Make a clean break. 

These front-line employees cannot make a difference without some help, however. Business people new to IT may be a little discomfited by how comfortable their new colleagues are with throwing around terms such as ITIL, SOA and ESB, Sigel notes. The fact that their former business colleagues still rely on their guidance can also make it hard for your hires to throw themselves headlong into their new jobs. “You need to work with them on a clear transition plan, and they need to stick to it,” says Sigel.

Nick Coussoule, CIO of BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, has hired business people for IT positions before and recently returned to that well to find a vice president of business engineering and continuous improvement.

Give equal opportunity to all constituents. 

Coussoule’s new VP had been running the company’s Medicare business, and “he needed to demonstrate that he understood and would fairly represent the entire company’s interests,” says Coussoule. “Right away, he set up specific times to sit down with each business and talk through goals and expectations. That went a long way toward showing everyone that he was wearing a new hat.” He also set up regular meetings with leaders in the IT organization, with a similarly positive result. “You can’t be viewed as ‘only IT’ by the business or as ‘only business’ by IT,” says Coussoule. “That’s critical to success in these hybrid roles.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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