Business leads IT

Computerworld (US)

At a breakfast meeting at last week’s Cutter Consortium Summit 2003 conference, one deep thinker pointed to FedEx’s Fred Smith as a CEO who really understands the value of IT. “I remember Fred Smith talking about IT like it was more important than the planes,” said Cutter consultant Michael Mah.

Well, yeah. That’s because at FedEx, IT is more important than the planes. Without its package-tracking systems, FedEx can’t charge premium prices for overnight delivery. IT makes the money flow. No wonder Fred Smith understands its value.

And no wonder so many other CEOs don’t. Much of the discussion at that breakfast meeting was about how to market IT to other parts of a business. People talked about positioning, about explaining IT’s unique situation in the organization, about translating techspeak into boardroomspeak.

Yeah, sure, fine. Think that’ll actually convince anyone of IT’s value as a core competency at your company?

There’s an easy test for what qualifies as a core competency in a business. Are you directly involved in extracting money from customers in exchange for products or services? Then you’re core. If not, you’re not.

Your CEO knows that. And if IT is core in your business, your CEO knows that too.

But it’s probably not. And positioning it and explaining it won’t change that situation.

Neither will translating techspeak into boardroomspeak, which has long been a Holy Grail for IT executives. Look, no one in the boardroom wants a translation of techspeak — any more than they want translations of sales-speak or logistics-speak or shop-floor-speak.

If you’re translating techspeak to boardroomspeak, that means you’re going about it wrong. You’re bringing technology to the table and trying to explain how it’s valuable to the business. That’s backward. You should be identifying business needs and then explaining how technology can meet them.

In other words, you should start your thinking with the business, not with the technology.

And to do that, you’ve got to know your business. If you want to start making IT core in your company, you need to know as much about how your company actually builds and moves and sells and collects money for products and services as you know about speeds and feeds and bits and wires.

You need to know your company’s business processes inside and out. Not the theory, not the wishful thinking that project specifications get based on, but how it’s actually done.

You need to know why it’s done that way — what was tried and failed, what was never tried because politics or business conditions or lack of the right technology prevented it.

You need to know what can be changed and what’s sacrosanct. You need to know where a little change will yield big results. You need to know who will help make that happen.

You won’t find out any of those things by researching technology. You’ll only do it by talking first to business-side executives, then to the managers who work for them. Talk up the opportunity for them to look good, the chance for them to take credit if you can find ways of making their operations more successful.

Then, once they’ve said yes, stop talking. Observe. Listen. Ask questions. Look for the places where IT really could transform how they do your company’s business.

That’s how you’ll get a shot at proving IT’s value as a core competency — through transformation, not marketing.

Sure, you can use marketing techniques to raise IT’s profile. You can remind other departments that IT does deliver value. You can make the case for IT’s usefulness.

But if you can find a way to make IT as core to your business as it is to FedEx, you can bet your CEO will value IT every bit as much as Fred Smith.