Six tips for better business-IT alignment

CIOs are developing innovative ways to bridge the IT-business divide and implement innovative strategies with business alignment in mind from ride-along and reverse-embedded IT.

Do you want business executives and IT could work more closely in collaborating on projects and sharing information in full? If you’re like many IT managers, the answer is likely yes. Benefits of better collaboration between business and IT include projects that more closely align with the business’s goals, improved changes management, and greater acceptance of new initiatives.

Additionally, working effectively with business partners is an essential ability for the leaders of today’s technology. By 2021 Gartner’s study found that tech professionals were more likely to be hired to perform tasks outside of IT than within it, claims Darren Topham, senior director analyst at Gartner homepage. With easy-to-use, cloud-based, low-code, or no-code solutions available, IT-savvy professionals can manage a lot of their technology with no assistance or assistance. “I think CIOs have a real challenge,” Topham states. “They cannot afford to take on the entire IT infrastructure. Collaboration must be a priority and distribution.”

Enhancing collaboration between the business and IT should be a top priority for technology executives. But how do you achieve this? Below, five IT executives share their strategies which have proved successful for them.

1. Ride-alongs

Different names and settings know the method. However, IT personnel always look at how their colleagues work using the tools they use and what they could do to be improved.

When Darren Person joined the market research company The NPD Group as global CIO three years ago, he was curious to understand how The NPD Group were being handled at the grassroots.

“I’ve found that when people enter the company at the C-suite level, many never really get into the weeds, understanding how a business runs and operates,” He says. According to him, the same is true for IT employees who are focused on the technology of a company and top executives who are away from the day-to-day tasks.

Since NPD is a data-driven company and Person is in charge of information architecture, “I own the factory,” he states. “So I thought it was extra-important that I understood how it worked.”

Many CIOs are spending the majority of their time focusing on the C-suite and board, he says, and working with just the top two or three levels of direct report. “When you make decisions and set strategy, there are many things that roll downhill to the staff that are not always visible.”

A person discovered that if he visited office spaces and observed people’s working environment, they would be able to talk with him more openly. He gained more understanding of their daily issues. He found the method so valuable that he decided to formalize the process into a system called “Day in the Life.” All new NPD employees are required to go through this process consisting of meetings, videos, and (before the outbreak) trips to workplaces to watch people performing their work. Participants can spend anything from several hours to a couple of days learning about how various company departments operate. A group of new employees from different departments of NPD participate in this program together, he says. “So it creates a little bit of camaraderie with people you wouldn’t normally have that with.”

The most significant benefit is the increased cohesion, Person says. “You build these relationships; you build these connections that maybe you wouldn’t have had before.” Being able to observe people doing their work has helped NPD’s tech experts enhance their work efficiency. “Many people pointed out some of the work they were doing in a very manual way,” Person states. “That allowed us to get involved in various opportunities to develop tools that would help the team. Most of what we’re working on currently on AI or machine learning has been prompted by these meetings with individuals.”

2. Embedded IT

One way to ensure that IT is aware of the requirements of a business unit is by having an IT professional join the department or business unit. The IT professional may be a part of IT or work through the department or business unit; however, they work closely with IT.

This method has proven efficient at the project-based software company Deltek according to Prithvi Mulchandani, vice-president of business applications for IT. “We have teams across the business with names like Customer Care Operations or Financial Systems,” he declares. “They aren’t accountable to the CIO but they report to the CFO and chief customer officer, etc. These teams are composed of highly technological individuals that are part of the company.”

Departments employ them, typically working in conjunction with IT. “Typically, their responsibilities include providing tier-one support to business users, developing reports, and meeting their users’ analytical and data needs,” the author states. “They can also undertake the more conventional IT projects, such as if we are experiencing a problem issue with a particular business process, and we want to explore the issue to see if we can find an option we can purchase and then implement. They’ll play a leading role, at the very least.”

3. Reverse-embedded IT

While embedding IT specialists in business units is more popular. However, certain IT executives have resulted in the reverse strategy of embedding business professionals within IT.

“I brought someone from the finance team onto my team who didn’t know IT,” says Mike Vance, executive vice head of professional services for Resultant’s technology consultancy firm. “That individual is currently a Scrum master for a major insurance firm. I hired them because they were humble, hungry and smart. I wanted them to build an alliance with the business, and bring that to the business.” Vance has often used this strategy, bringing in IT liaisons from different departments, such as HR.

IT liaison might sound like an analyst job, but it’s something more, he says. “The job is to make sure you fully understand what the business is trying to achieve, and then bring that back and articulate it to IT because that’s the gap that always happens.” IT liaisons already have credibility due to their relationships with the business since they’ve been there and are acquainted with the functions of this area and the challenges.

IT liaisons must establish credibility with their new IT colleagues. “That happens as soon as you’re removing barriers for them, making things get out the door faster,” Vance states. “Or returning to the company to say, “Hey, I’m assuming that what you’re asking for is a major modification to how the system is set up. What else can we do to achieve it? In-between work is extremely effective.”

4. cross-functional Teams

A popular method to build collaboration between IT and business is through cross-functional teams. Cross-functional teams are made up of IT professionals and professionals from other fields of business to collaborate to complete a task or an initiative. Topham claims they could run between a month and three months, or even a whole calendar year, while they always have a clear goal.

Topham says this method is becoming more frequent and structured, with organizations beginning to incorporate cross-functional teams in their organizational charts and more and more organizing their activities to ensure that employees with the right skills are on hand when and where they are required.

In some instances, in the case of cross-functional teams, they are becoming an integral part of the business-IT environment. Before Resultant, Vance was CIO at Steak n Shake, where he also set up IT liaisons into place as they later were at Resultant. However, in that huge company, he also established Business Advisory Boards (BABs), where IT liaisons would meet regularly with the heads of the various roles to discuss their priorities and force ranking of the priority items.

He states that that stopped IT projects from being prioritized in informal discussions in hallways. “Because the answer is”, Well, that’s 15th in your priority list. If you’d like us to move it up, then we’ll move it to the top.'” This helped everyone stay on the same page about which projects needed attention and made it easier to hold IT responsible, Vance says. “Because you have weekly discussions, and they’re seeing the progress on their initiatives. It could be, “Hey, we’re still waiting for you to contact us about this, or ‘That went off and here’s why.'” Thus, in addition to a better alignment, the BABs have also provided more transparency.

5. Training for people who are not IT (and vice)

One of the most effective methods to increase coordination and collaboration between the IT and business IT is for people who are not IT to comprehend technology better. In this regard, many companies offer education programs that let IT personnel teach non-IT counterparts about the systems that run the company. These range from simple “lunch and learn” meetings to formal educational courses like the one at the insurance major Liberty Mutual, which has established an internal technology literacy program for its employees who aren’t tech-savvy.

“It’s a homeroom curriculum that starts with a two-day immersive foundational program,” says Andrew Palmer, CIO. “We started originally with our top 100 leaders, but we’ve been expanding it.” In the first year, more than 11,000 Liberty Mutual executives have taken the course since it launched in 2019. In the last few months, the company has also come up with self-paced video versions that provide the program to Liberty Mutual employees worldwide.

For the audience it is targeting, The curriculum is quite sophisticated. “After they’ve completed the fundamentals, we offer classes on data systems and insights security, new technologies, security such as telematics, and all sorts of in-depth dives into these fields. The goal is not to make students code in the first place and then go on to code, but we do not intend to make it more difficult as well,” he says.

The motivation for the program was derived from senior executives who realized that the company of 110 years was facing newer competitors that were more digital. “We very quickly learned that a lot of the disruption and innovation was going to be done at the intersection of business and IT,” Palmer notes.

This is a concern for large companies as, according to him, at tech startups, where everyone is fully aware of the business model and the technology — there’s no distinction between IT and business. “There is a certain base tech literacy that’s required to communicate across that intersection, and providing that was the program’s intent,” He says.

The immediate effect is that Liberty’s business executives are more aware of technology debt than before, Palmer says. “In earlier times, technology debt was something IT worked within the shadows and perform as a night job. Today, we have a more streamlined linkage between business decisions taken and the costs of running these decisions within IT infrastructure.”

Business leaders also have a better understanding of the options available to them to control the cost of technology. They’ve also been taught to think about IT abilities at each step in their decisions. “Our planning discussions are much richer,” Palmer adds.

In the last few months, the company has decided to transform the special program around and create training courses on the business of insurance specifically for IT individuals. It’s particularly useful; Palmer says that the company’s digital transformation has eliminated many jobs as business analysts.

“When we moved into an agile framework, we had product owners working directly with engineers,” he declares. “It was really important that the engineers drive a lot of the problem solving around business opportunities to take that translator step out, as well as do a lot more of the testing.” The program for business literacy for IT has been running a test that has involved 40 engineers and is scheduled to roll out later this year, he adds.

Palmer’s advice for others in the tech industry who wish to start education programs? “Don’t water it down, and don’t make it too abstract.” Be aware that business leaders who comprehend the work IT does can make more effective partners. “You’re not giving value away — it is not a zero-sum game,” the author says. “And make sure that your top IT leaders help and become instructors. Otherwise, you’ll miss the chance to build trust.”

6. Participation at all levels in corporate events and programs

AppDirect’s Chief Information Officer Pierre-Luc Bisaillon previously served as CIO of Cirque du Soleil Entertainment Group, the famous circus’s headquarters for administration located in Montreal, Canada. The department’s IT staff of 120 managed the systems, including HR and ERP systems, that ensured the operation continued (its technologies for performance were managed in a different location).

When Bisaillon first started his job, he discovered an IT department that needed an overhaul in its image. “IT was located in the typical situation, and it was in the basement, and WiFi isn’t working. This is not exactly a positive culture or attitude.”

He set out to improve the process by reorganizing his IT division. Before this, employees were separated by specific tasks, such as the business analyst, project director and developer. He set up specific delivery teams that combined those roles to focus on specific business areas, like HR Finance, HR, or Creative. This led to more accountability, transparency and prioritization of projects.

In the meantime, Bisaillon wanted to do something tangible and urgent to improve IT’s status within the company and its self-esteem. Halloween was just around the corner, and IT’s corporate division would usually hold costumes-themed parades around the headquarters. “You can imagine that at Cirque du Soleil, Halloween is a very important event, and it’s celebrated throughout the entire organization,” the IT manager states. He chose to ensure that his IT department should be fully involved in the event.

Bisaillon, as well as his group, decided to God as well as the Minions as an idea that could attract people to participate. He offered to play Gru and the Minions, which meant an hour in a makeup chair. Although he didn’t require his parade attendance, he ordered enough yellow t-shirts and hats that would make every IT worker Minion. The entire department gathered, and, during the parade, IT Minions took over the stages. They took home the prize, he says. “But for me, the most impressive incident I’ve heard about was an employee saying, “I’ve been here for 11 years, and I’ve not participated in the Cirque du Soleil Halloween parade before. This was all about gathering IT to work together and showing that we were part of the team and could provide something enjoyable. This gave us enormous confidence in the things we could accomplish to help the company.”

It also improved the business world’s attitudes and on the business side. “IT was now top of mind, not just as people who could do WiFi,” Bisaillon states. “We’re here, we understand, and we want to be part of this culture.” Slowly, IT’s attitudes began to shift towards IT and the business working in tandem. “It didn’t change instantly,” said the expert. “But it opened the door to building relationships.”

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