How to turn IT staff into business participants

It’s one thing for IT leaders and staff to know the business, but it’s another to play an active role in the process of planning and conducting that business. This is what has to happen if IT is to have a more strategic impact on the company and the bottom line, from the CIO on down. That integration will come not after one project, but after a series of simple steps that demonstrate the process to your staff through your actions.

When I arrived at Mazda North American Operations eight years ago, IT was seen as a group of efficient order-takers. The CEO and CFO hired me because they wanted IT to become something more. I had to infiltrate the business and position and encourage my staff to do the same.

This must be a planned move on your part, because the business leaders aren’t going to come to you or ask you to get involved, and they will want to know why you should be involved. I started by developing relationships with those key business executives. Once they realized that I understood their needs and goals, they invited me to planning meetings, where I could demonstrate IT’s value to the process.

Only after establishing my place as CIO could I ask to bring my team in. Being in the room, however, did not automatically equate to involvement. I got reports after meetings that my people never said anything, never got involved. I hadn’t prepared my staff correctly–after years of being treated as order-takers, they needed to be pushed to think about business processes and priorities, or to voice input on projects with direct impact on company goals. I quickly shuffled people around to find the right staff to send to those meetings, people who were comfortable in a business environment.

Besides expanding our participation in business planning meetings, I also got my team involved in cross-process issues where they had unique perspectives on potential solutions. They were then able to learn on the job how to think about and act on strategy, and it was easy to continue the conversation outside of the immediate issue.

Ultimately, and most importantly to our future, I created a new expectation for my staff and provided the means to meet it. Now everyone in my group knows that they have a skill to cultivate as they go up the career ladder: they have to be able to talk to and work with their counterparts in the business in order to advance.

—Jim DiMarzio is CIO of Mazda North American Operations and a CIO Executive Council member

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