(Published by The Mark News here)

IT doesn’t have to be so hard. Here are 10 tips on getting the most from your IT department.

Isn’t technology wonderful? My phone has more processing power than an average school board could hope for just 15 years ago. I can stay in touch with the world; I can collaborate and do client work from my boat or a remote shoreline. New technologies become available almost on a daily basis, and even before the iPad was released earlier this month (to a surprisingly positive review from Walt Mossberg), some tablet contenders were quick to identify themselves to the world.

That said, when dealing with their IT departments, even the leading companies are having as many if not more challenges today as they were 10, 15, or 20 years ago. The typical sentiments of business leaders are as follows:

  • “IT is basically a black hole for money” (as one CFO put it to me);
  • “Whenever I want to take advantage of a business opportunity and need to move quickly, I know that IT will be in the way. It makes us uncompetitive”;
  • “They don’t understand the language of business priorities and finance”;
  • “Instead of doing what’s best for the business, they seem to focus on yet another methodology, a fad of the day that has little if any tangible business value”;
  • “IT projects are often misguided and run late and over-budget”;
  • “They hide behind their procedures and processes and are unwilling to make an exception, no matter how urgent.”

If any of this sounds familiar to you, you may have reconciled yourself to the belief that this is just the way IT works.

If that’s the case, you’re being shortchanged. In today’s highly competitive environment, you can’t afford a function that underperforms in such a consistent manner. It’s no surprise that organizations across the wide spectrum of industries are outsourcing their IT departments in search of a reliable business partner. Outsourcing is often not the answer to these issues, as much of the valuable tacit knowledge becomes lost in the transition and the projected cost savings may be elusive.

What’s a CEO to do? How do you turn it around? Based on extensive work in this area, here are my top 10 recommendations:

  1. Hire a business-minded CIO who can translate the strategy of your organization into the strategy of her department.
  2. Insist that IT strategy is not merely a list of nebulous intentions but rather a target supported by a list of concrete steps (projects) with concrete timelines and responsibilities.
  3. Demand that IT speak the language of the business. They must be able to present a solid business case and understand key financial metrics (NPV, ROI, etc.) and strategy. They must be intimately familiar with the state of your industry, key pressure points, and emerging priorities.
  4. Encourage the CIO to hire talented, extraordinary people, not just carbon copies of the staff she already has.
  5. Encourage the CIO to become a technology thought-leader within the organization. Charge her with promoting technology skills to improve performance across the board.
  6. Aspire to see your IT grow into an innovation powerhouse. You really don’t want an expensive support department, but a group that propels the business past the competition through the knowledgeable application of technology is an incredibly valuable asset.
  7. Establish a project prioritization mechanism to avoid the confusion of conflicting priorities and turf wars.
  8. Appoint project managers not for the designations, the years in the industry, or the narrow systems knowledge they may boast but for their business acumen and ability to drive the project forward and over the hurdles that will inevitably occur, as well as to synthesize and communicate.
  9. Give your IT business challenges and results, not technical support orders. Instead of “We need to implement a business intelligence solution from X,” ask, “What can we do to ensure that we get our segment sales information in the most expedient, scalable, and timely manner?” If you have tried and the result fell short of your expectations, you don’t have the IT department you need and deserve.
  10. Draw on external experience. Resourcefulness and self-reliance are commendable, but the exclusively internal locus is detrimental. How will the best practices and ideas enter the organization if they are not actively sought out?

If you are an owner or an executive of a business today, you simply cannot afford not to act on sub-par performance. IT can be complex, but it doesn’t have to be difficult.

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