Careers Special Report 2015

The embedded IT worker: Would you fit in?

When IT workers can collaborate and share ideas with their business colleagues, good things happen for the bottom line. But it takes more than just sitting side by side — it's a culture shift.

Puzzle-piece faces, with one standing up; difference; fitting in
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These days IT veteran Deborah H. DeCorrevont is just as likely to work in a hard hat and steel-toe shoes as she is in typical business attire.

DeCorrevont is a business relationship manager at an Arizona utility company. Her role has her working side by side with the operations, planning and engineering staff. She's in business meetings with directors and managers and out in the field so she can see firsthand what workers need from technology.

DeCorrevont, who's also the president of the board of the Arizona chapter of the Society for Information Management (SIM), estimates that she spends only 20% of her time within IT, devising plans to fit the business needs into the overall IT strategy.

She says this about the way she approaches her job: "It's something I think more businesses should do because I think it improves the relationship between IT and the business."

DeCorrevont is part of a cadre of IT professionals who are not just aligned with their business but embedded in it.

The idea of embedding IT workers within business units has been promoted for years, but it has been slow to take hold: Only a fraction of technology professionals work in departments other than IT.

In Computerworld's annual careers survey of IT professionals, 65% of the 221 respondents said they are part of an IT department, while 17% work for IT service providers and 18% are embedded in a unit outside of IT.

Careers 2015: Sitting Tight in IT [chart] Computerworld

Of those respondents who reported that they're embedded in the business, 10% said the organization implemented the embedded structure within the past year; 20% said the embedded role was created more than a year ago but didn't exist earlier than 2009; and 70% said their organization has had the embedded structure for more than five years.

Those figures indicate that more organizations are moving toward embedding IT professionals within the business, but they also show that technologists are hardly switching departments en masse.

Gaining valuable insights

More employers should move in that direction, however, say management consultants, CIOs and technology professionals who themselves are embedded in non-IT units.

"Everyone wants to be aligned with the business, but what becomes interesting and what's rare is physically embedding IT people, [where] you actually sit within that particular group so you have not only formal meetings with them but you get the normal minute-by-minute vibe," says Andy Woyzbun, senior director for the CIO practice at Toronto-based Info-Tech Research Group. "There's no question that that kind of embeddedness can lead to very close relationships. We don't see that very often, but I think it should be more frequent."

Embedding IT workers within the divisions they support can have significant benefits, Woyzbun and others say. Those benefits include stronger relationships that foster communication and collaboration between business users and IT, as well as a more complete understanding on the part of IT of operational workflows and processes. Those positive outcomes in turn allow IT to deliver systems that better meet organizational needs and goals.

Consider this example from Morris Yankell, principal of HRcomputes, a consulting firm in Moorestown, N.J. Yankell has worked side by side with human resources employees with his current company and at former employers. He remembers one project that left junior HR staffers in the company's call center fumbling through an application that his team had just deployed. "Being there, I could see the struggles," he says.

Charles Galda, CIO, GE Capital Technology Centers and Services Unit

Charles Galda

Seeing that they had trouble finding the right information and understanding the data once found, he initiated more training, simplified parts of the system and developed ways to more easily present needed data. Yankell says he couldn't have gained that insight if he was just reading reports and hearing in meetings that the junior HR folks weren't resolving calls.

Charles Galda has a similar take. He's CIO of GE Capital's Technology Centers and Services unit, which has embedded IT workers throughout the business for years.

"It allows IT employees to stay more closely connected to our customers' needs and business processes, as well as our own products and commercial business partners," he says, noting that while embedded workers are colocated with their business colleagues they still report back to IT.

Getting aligned with business goals

Roger Stiles, CIO at Fidelity Personal Investing, the retail business division of Boston-based Fidelity Investments, agrees. He explains that his whole IT operation is part of the personal investing business unit and his technologists work throughout the department's multiple geographic locations.

Careers 2015: Early Adopters [chart] Computerworld

Many organizations that embed their IT employees within a business unit have a similar setup, with embedded workers focusing most of their time on the business — regardless of where their desks are. That's what makes the practice of embedding a worker different, and more complex, than simply colocating. In fact, embedded workers and their supervisors say colocating really isn't the point — nor will it automatically deliver the results. They say organizations have to cultivate an environment where IT and business have equal stakes in success and leaders have to staff the embedded positions with professionals who have the right mix of qualifications to make this practice yield benefits.

Getting a jump on ideas

Adam Noble, senior vice president and CIO at GAF, a roofing manufacturer headquartered in Wayne, N.J., has business analysts embedded within business units and even interacting with external customers. He estimates that they spend about 90% of their time with leaders of the various company divisions, helping to define strategy and determine where technology fits in.

"You see this overlap of business and tech quite a lot, and that's really the real value proposition, being part of the business unit so we're aligned with all the business goals," says Stiles.

IT is grouped together, but Stiles says his analysts — about 20% of his team — are somewhat colocated. "We try to get those folks as close to the business as much as we can, because the key is to learn the business as well as you can," he says.

Noble says these embedded techies allow IT to be proactive. "If these individuals weren't meeting and speaking with the business, it would be more challenging; then you're in a more reactionary mode," he says.

But Noble says that these embedded workers can't endorse every business request. They still have to manage users' expectations and balance what their business colleagues want against what's possible given the organization's overall IT capabilities, budget and priorities. They can't just blindly give business every desired application without thinking about integration, security, total cost of ownership and ROI — and, of course, whether it will truly add value.

That requires an organization, he and others say, where IT and the various business visions have a cooperative attitude, not an "us vs. them" mentality. And it requires the embedded IT employees to have strong influencing skills so that saying no doesn't come off as obstructionist but rather as a step toward getting to where everyone needs to be.

Technologists at heart

Risa Fogel, senior managing director responsible for business solutions at Cushman & Wakefield, a global commercial real estate firm headquartered in New York, embeds IT workers within the business, assigning each one to specific functional areas. Those people spend more than half their time meeting with business colleagues, connecting in person or via technology, depending on location. (The geographically dispersed nature of the company is a significant barrier for colocating IT and business people together, Fogel says.)

Risa Fogel, senior managing director, business solutions, Cushman & Wakefield

Risa Fogel

"They work very closely with business colleagues, so they understand business strategies and drivers and challenges, the impact of the marketplace on our business, and how we can use technology to solve business problems," she says.

However, those employees — like most embedded IT workers — remain IT employees, answering up to IT managers or CIOs. Fogel says that's important because they must retain their IT chops so they can provide relevant guidance to their business counterparts — and so they know what IT can actually deliver.

"It's a challenging role, because they have to know the business and they have to understand the position of the CIO. They have to know our IT strategy," she says.

Louis Ernest III can attest to the balancing act. As corporate directory/applications administrator at University Hospitals of Cleveland, he sits — physically as well as functionally — within operations.

He says being part of operations means he's more engaged with his business colleagues and gains more insight into their requirements. To do that, though, he says the role requires him to hone his communication and collaboration skills as well as his knowledge of business operations. Yet he still has to keep his tech skills up to date, and he says he attends meetings and events in IT "just to keep myself engaged, and for them to remember who I am."

Careers 2015: Plenty on Their Plates [chart] Computerworld

Demand for IT professionals who can work within the business is on the rise, says Kristen Lamoreaux, president and CEO of executive recruiting firm Lamoreaux Search, a member of the board of SIM's Philadelphia chapter and founder of SIM Women.

IT departments that have people in that role typically give them the title of business relationship manager and, to a lesser degree, business analyst, with annual pay in the neighborhood of $100,000, she says. These employees generally report into IT leadership, with dotted lines to executives or managers in the business function they support.

An embedded role demands communication and collaboration skills above what's sought in a typical IT employee, says Lamoreaux. They must be willing to take the initiative, have good listening skills and be politically savvy in order to balance competing demands and requests.

"They have to be able to focus on what's best for the company as a whole," she says. "They tend to be bigger-picture people who are good at managing details. They can prioritize, understand what's right or what's right but not right now."

Moreover, "they understand what makes sense, the pipeline of IT," she adds, "and they become the champion of the project and not the champion of the business or IT."

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Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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