As a CIO it’s tempting to ask executives and business leaders, “What’s the business strategy? What are the most important priorities I should have for the IT organization? Can I have a seat at the table when key strategies are being set?”
Asking those questions and executing accordingly is a pretty realistic way to make sure IT is serving the business.
The problem is I don’t think that’s enough. Nicholas Carr’s famous 2003 article “IT Doesn’t Matter” stuck with me from the time I read it. His point is a simple one about trying to gain competitive advantage from technology.
For me, the Carr article helped add the missing ingredient for IT strategy. Before then, the view of what an IT organization should do was pretty straightforward; IT’s job was to make sure systems were running reliably and performing as needed, make sure projects were being prioritized and completed the way the business needed and make sure service was provisioned as needed (i.e. allocating bandwidth, phones, computers, printers, etc.).
Maybe that sounds like the perfect IT organization, but it’s no longer enough. Working on competitive advantage through innovation must be added to the formula. Here are 4 guiding principles that have emerged for the IT organization.
IT leaders can’t ask about the company strategy and priorities to work on; they have to know.
IT should be so closely aligned with the business that they know upfront what the company strategies and priorities are; they shouldn’t have to ask. The first essential step to bringing competitive advantage through innovation is to have the kind of alignment that embeds IT leaders into the business such that they feel they are part of the business instead of just “good partners.”
Gaining Competitive Advantage from technology should be IT’s critical mission.
Keeping systems and networks running smoothly while adhering to committed services levels is still an important aspect to IT’s role, but as Carr’s article points out, “IT doesn’t matter” if competitive advantage isn’t being sought after by IT. An IT organization can be easily consumed by the day-to-day needs to keep things running, and if it isn’t careful, that may be all it does. But it’s critical to set aside time to work on the future and find ways to use technology to differentiate your business from its competitors. If IT isn’t working on this relative to technology, who is?
Innovation should be second nature to IT.
Innovation should come as naturally to the IT organization as keeping things running smoothly and provisioning services. IT has to lead the way not just with innovation activity, but by being experts with the methodology of innovation. In other words, the business can’t wait for innovation to occur on a less than predictable schedule. IT has to work hard to create the conditions for it to happen over and over again using principles of design thinking.
IT must demonstrate the value of disruption.
IT has to show the possibilities that come from the technology and innovation work it does. IT may have to work hard at communicating and convincing the rest of the business that disruptive change is not only likely to happen, but can be taken advantage of if done correctly. It’s not enough to have great ideas about innovation and sources of competitive advantage; IT has to be able to sell those ideas also.
At Steelcase we’ve been working hard to embrace these principles. They’ve led us towards a number of research and project areas that are important for the business. Any IT organization, large or small, can use these principles. Do you agree with these principles? Are there any you would add? What are you doing within your IT organization to gain competitive advantage?