Opinion: Reactive bystander or proactive partner?

Business leaders' complaints about IT haven't changed much over the years. IT people speak their own jargon. They don't understand what stockholders and business leaders value. They're isolated from the business. They focus on technology at the cost of everything else.

Pressed, they might say that things have gotten better over the years. But I guarantee there are very few of them who see IT as an equal partner in the pursuit of goals that can be summed up in just six words: avoid costs; improve service; increase revenue.

Sure, at some level, every IT professional realizes that what IT does serves a business purpose, but that awareness is fairly dim for most of us (this once included me, by the way). After all, most of us went into this field because it was technology that interested us. Business in and of itself? Not so much.

Can we really change the perceptions of IT among business leaders? Sure, if we change our approach to them and learn to address the topic of technology's intersection with business in the language they understand. Consider the following two scenarios in which an IT guy meets with a business manager. The first is fairly typical of what happens all the time in businesses around the country. The second is somewhat idealized but illustrates an approach that we all can learn to use.

Act I, Scene 1

IT GUY, entering the office of a business manager: I heard that you wanted to see me. How can I help you?

BUSINESS MANAGER: You can tell me why I shouldn't get my IT support from someone who's cheaper. I'm not in the business of seeing my profit margins shrink while you IT guys add all the technology toys you want. Message clear?

IT GUY: It sure is. I'll get back to you promptly on this.

Act I, Scene 2

One week later.

BUSINESS MANAGER: OK, what have you got for me?

IT GUY, handing over some papers: I've been looking at the PC and help desk support we provide your business, and our benchmarks, which you can verify, show that our costs are less than you'd pay if you decided to outsource it.

BUSINESS MANAGER, unhappy: Boy, oh boy, I get to verify these numbers? You've got to be kidding me -- is this what we're having this meeting for? Your hands are tied and there's nothing you can do about my cost issue?

IT GUY: Uh, sorry, I should have related the following first. I've analyzed your support situation and discovered that your business needs different levels of PC and help desk support based on the type of work that is done by your employees.

See? Your operations staff needs the current 24/7 PC and help desk support, with half-hour on-site assistance, but most managerial and administrative staffs need only 10 hours of support five days a week, with a two-hour, on-site assistance expectation.

BUSINESS MANAGER, a little interested: So, where's all this leading?

IT GUY: Well, I can't reduce your costs for your operations staff unless you tell me that you're OK with less support -- either fewer days per week, fewer hours per day or a longer on-site assistance expectation.

BUSINESS MANAGER: Well, I'm sure that my operations people need the current level of IT support, but now that you've posed the question, I'll see if I can reduce some cost there without adding too much risk. Is that all you've got?

IT GUY: No. Since about a third of your employees are in the managerial administrative support category, the capacity I need to support them is considerably less than for your 24/7 operational people. If you can wait six weeks for me to adjust things, my monthly charges to you can be less for this number of your employees by this amount.

BUSINESS MANAGER: Six weeks? I want you to get on this right away. I'm sure you're busy, but every day less than six weeks helps our stockholders. I appreciate what you've done here, but from now on I want to hear suggestions from you before I have to ask. Understood?

IT GUY: Understood.

Act II, Scene 1

Newly hired IT guy has called for an introductory meeting with the business manager.

IT GUY: I'm glad you had time to fit me in. I didn't come to steal your time, only to introduce myself and let you know that I'm just a phone call away for any issues that you might have with the support we provide you and your people.

BUSINESS MANAGER: Well, I wasn't prepared to discuss issues today, but if I have any, I'll certainly let you know.

IT GUY: I would appreciate that. And please, call me Walt.

BUSINESS MANAGER: OK, Walt. I'm Sam.

WALT: Before I go, Sam, I'd like you to know that sometime when you have a chance, I'd very much like to understand your business processes and the role IT plays in it, from your perspective.

SAM: What do you mean?

WALT: Well, your customer acquisition cycle, your customer service/retention cycle, what pull-through your business provides or receives from other parts of the enterprise -- all that would be of interest. Your short- and long-term goals would also be of value to me, when you have the time. If I understood your situation better, I could perhaps suggest some ways for you to avoid cost while improving service and maybe even increasing revenue.

Sam is intrigued and uses his whiteboard to lay out his business and the role he sees IT playing in it. Meanwhile, Walt is alert, takes notes and makes drawings. He's not play-acting. He wants to remember what he's being told so he can later come up with a course of action.

WALT, taking his leave: I very much appreciate your taking time to share all of this with me. This has been extremely helpful. If you don't mind, I'd like to arrange another meeting with you shortly so we can go over all this and make sure I've gotten it all right. At that time, I'd like to share any potential opportunities that I see for better dealing with the issues you've raised, as well as avoiding cost, improving service and increasing revenue. I may even be able to suggest some ways to deal with some short-term headaches, but it's too early to promise anything. I have to learn more on my end. Anyway, I'm certain that an ongoing dialogue could be very productive. In the meantime, Sam, if something occurs to you that needs my attention, I'd be grateful if you'd personally let me know right away.

SAM: OK, Walt. I won't forget.

The difference?

In the first example, the IT guy really thinks he's being helpful and responsive. But he's only being reactive. The business manager feels as if he has to wring information about avoiding costs out of him.

In the second scenario, the entire session was directed by Walt, who seemed to promise more involvement in Sam's domain than Sam had ever expected from any IT professional. What's more, Walt seemed to understand most of the business issues that Sam discussed.

Walt didn't come to Sam with his hat in his hand. He had enough confidence to know that IT could be a powerful ally and an involved partner to business needs, and he didn't wait to be asked. He proactively pressed to find out what his client's needs were and to help surface specific areas where he could help. By the way, I've seen it done the other way, where the business manager is the new guy. Once again, it's the IT guy who takes the initiative, visiting the new business manager within a few weeks of his arrival.

Of course, Walt's interpersonal skills and business-oriented language are acquired capabilities for most of us. Some coaching from those proficient in these types of consultative and business skills will usually be needed to raise our levels. An ongoing client relationship management program can be helpful in maintaining and further developing these skills over time.

The really good news is that this kind of transformation always results in the company's increased appreciation for the IT community. That causes a corresponding energy release within the IT community, making it even more responsive to the enterprise.

All this comes about when IT professionals proactively communicate with their clients in simple business terms to understand their linked destiny. When this happens, the IT community can no longer be a reactive bystander to what goes on in the business. Successfully achieving the company's strategy becomes the jointly shared outcome that stockholders have every right to expect.

Al Kuebler was CIO for AT&T Universal Card, Los Angeles County, Alcatel and McGraw-Hill and director of process engineering at Citicorp. He also directed the consulting activity for CSC Europe. He is now a consultant on general management and IT issues. He is the author of the book Technical Impact: Making Your Information Technology Effective, and Keeping It That Way. He can be reached at ak@technicalimpact.com.

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