Helping Businesses Help Themselves

This morning, I spent little over an hour listening to Susan Cramm on the above live HBR webcast. I always enjoy what Susan has to say. She is a former CIO and CFO who definitely “gets it” when it comes to enterprises realizing value from IT-enabled change.

My takeaways – not new but very much reinforcing – from Susan’s webcast, which was based on her book “8 Things We Hate About IT” and the study which it describes, are that:

  1. It’s time to align authority and accountability for IT – in that the same way that we don’t expect the HR function to manage all our people, or the finance function to manage all our finances, we shouldn’t abdicate (my word) accountability for the intelligent (my word again) use of IT to the IT function.
  2. This means we need to re-architect our IT capabilities – key points being business leaders going from being “IT-dumb” (as the study reports 75% are today) to IT-smart, moving beyond thinking of IT as an organizational function to IT as a business asset, and moving beyond oversight to accountability, i.e. acknowledging their decision “obligations” (again, my word).
  3. The IT function should retain responsibility and accountability related to fiduciary, economies of scale and enabling infrastructure, while the business units must accept responsibility and accountability for delivery.
  4. The IT function stops doing things for the business that the business should be doing for themselves – shifting from an “IT Provides – Business Helps” model to an “IT Helps – Business Provides” model.

Basically, business leaders need to stop thinking of IT as a technology they can leave to IT specialists  to a business asset/tool that they need to manage such that it creates and sustains value for their enterprise and their stakeholders.

While it seems improbable that this has not yet happened, we know, as reinforced by Susan’s study, that this has not happened. From my experience:

  • A CEO told me, not that long ago, that while he knew IT was important, he was much more comfortable focusing on the “core business”. Years – no decades – ago, this might have been OK but today, in most enterprises, IT is embedded in most if not all aspects of the “core business”.
  • When we were developing Val IT 2.0, we added a practice within the VG1 process, Establish Informed and Committed Leadership, that was  VG1.3 Establish a Leadership Forum. The objective of this practice was to “…help the leadership understand and regularly discuss the opportunities that could arise from business change enabled by new or emerging technologies, and to understand their responsibilities in optimising the value created from those opportunities.” I was amazed – and somewhat disheartened – during the review process how many people questioned the need for this practice.
  • There is a consultant living just over the water from me who facilitates CEO forums and has become very successful at it. I approached her to see if we could work together to introduce the topic of CEO responsibilities, and accountabilities related to realizing value from IT or, more specifically IT-enabled change. Her response was “CEOs don’t want to talk about IT – they leave that to their CIOs.”

I am giving a keynote speech in November at the ER 2010 Conference in Vancouver. As I was listening to Susan, I reflected on the work of Steven Alter – a recognized authority in the evolving ER (or, more accurately, conceptual modeling)  space, who says: “IT success isn’t just about IT, it is about the effectiveness of people and organizations – IT usage makes an important difference only when it is part of a work system, and IT success is really about work system success.”

In the same way as the IT function – even if it were willing and capable – cannot be held accountable for the ultimate success of IT-enabled change, they cannot be held accountable for the ultimate success of work systems. They are undoubtedly accountable for delivering the enabling infrastructure, and responsible for working in partnership with the business to help them better understand potential opportunities – and the business responsibilities  and accountabilities related to successfully exploiting those opportunities, but cannot be held accountable for their ultimate success.

For this to happen requires significant behavioural change – there is and will continue to be resistance from both business and IT leadership. For this change to happen, we need – as Susan said today to “engage senior leadership in exploring the appropriate role for IT” and, I would add, their role responsibility and accountability in the context of that role. We need that leaderhip forum – an ongoing forum – that we proposed in Val IT 2.0 so that we can get “the right people in the room having the right discussion”.

The response from a number of listeners to the webcast, which is the same as I always get when I present, was “you have given us a lot to think about here.” Yes, we always need to think, but thought must be balanced with action. We have been talking about the role of business leadership related to IT-enabled change for well over a decade now – it’s time to move beyond thinking to action!

If you missed Susan’s webcast, you can watch a recording at http://s.hbr.org/cR3qlT

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One Comment

  1. Asky
    Posted September 16, 2013 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    Hi John,

    I find your posts very informative and helpful as am interested in value management and plan to do my PhD research in this area. My initial assumption was that lack of knowledge and awareness was the major issue IT enabled investments does not deliver value and organisations are not applying value practices. After reading blogs like your own, professional and academic materials and books, I kind of agree with you that taking action is the issue. I am wondering what can be done, if I should focus my research in this direction. Do you have any advice or pointers? I would be honoured to receive any advice from you.

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