IT needs a business-minded view

At the start of each semester, Harvard Business School professor Rob Austin draws two circles on the blackboard. He labels one “business,” and the other “IT.” With his chalk, he directs his students’ attention to the spot in the center where the two intersect.

“If you can live in that space, you will have a job forever,” says Austin, who teaches technology and operations and is a consultant at Arlington, Mass.-based Cutter Consortium.

It has almost developed into a mantra within companies during the past several years: for technology to be effective, IT workers need to understand the business objectives. But while many managers look for business know-how when hiring IT workers, there is still only a minority of companies that have well-developed training programs in place to hone workers’ skills on both sides of the fence.

W.W. Grainger Inc., a US$4.8 billion distributor of business maintenance products in Lake Forest, Ill., has created a cross-discipline movement designed to get IT workers thinking strategically about the various parts of the business.

“One thing is for sure: cross-training will get you out of your comfort zone,” said Tim Ferrarell, senior vice-president of enterprise systems. Since joining Grainger 20 years ago, Ferrarell has moved from positions in product management and marketing to business planning and on to his current role in IT. Moving into new roles has forced him to face and conquer the unknown, Ferrarell said. But it can be difficult to effectively lead a team that knows you’re a rookie who’s just learning the ropes in your latest role.

One lesson learned: “Get comfortable with saying, ‘I don’t know but will find out,'” Ferrarell said. “The old saying ‘Fake it till you make it’ doesn’t work, particularly with the technical team.”

With the goal of infusing IT and non-IT managers with the ability to think strategically and understand how each aspect of the business affects all the other parts, Grainger regularly moves managers across disciplines – from marketing to IT, from field office work to corporate office work, from regional sales offices to distribution centers – as a sort of training-under-fire program.

Individual Paths

Each Grainger employee has a customized professional development plan, and they’re assigned new roles to gain the skills they need. The length of time in each role varies, depending on the specific skills and experience the worker needs to attain. After completing a stint in a particular department, some workers return to their original jobs, while others may go to yet another department.

To learn how technology can further Grainger’s business objectives, Ferrarell shifted from an executive role in marketing to his current one in IT. On the flip side, the vice-president who previously ran the IT department at Grainger is now the company’s executive vice-president of marketing and sales.

To supplement the on-the-job training, Grainger has an in-house program supplemented by consulting services from the Colorado Springs-based Center for Creative Leadership. Together, the two programs offer all employees some lessons about specific pieces of the business – something training experts say is rare. For example, the training center offers workers from all areas of the company courses on topics ranging from supply chains to customer service to marketing. It also has an in-house executive education program based on Grainger’s strategy.

“I’d say it’s invaluable,” Ferrarell said of Grainger’s cross-training culture. He said he’s always appreciated the company’s strategy, but since moving to IT earlier this year, he better understands how to put that strategy into operation. For instance, he has spent much of the past year learning about how to get the most out of Grainger’s SAP enterprise resource planning system to make the business run more efficiently.

“Oftentimes, people confuse training with expertise,” he said.

At Northfield, Ill.-based Kraft Foods Inc., cross-training is very much an out-of-classroom experience. “Conferences and classes and reading books will never make you an expert on anything,” said Margaret Schweer, director of human resources for information systems at Kraft Foods. “Some of the most powerful learning you’re going to have is in the context of the job.”

She cites some of Kraft’s homegrown leaders as examples. Mark Johnson came to Kraft with a bachelor’s degree in information systems but spent 10 years selling Kraft products. About two years ago, he took an application development job, and he’s now director of information systems for sales.

“We have a lot of those examples,” Schweer said. “That’s not unusual for us.”

She said that Kraft, like Grainger, thinks in terms of enhancing employees’ capabilities across a broad range of functional business areas so they can move from job to job or department to department based on their needs and the needs of the company. Kraft has a yearlong leadership program that teaches prospective IT managers accounting, basic finance and industry-specific facts. It also teams participants with mentors who teach them about the business and listen to their views from a technology perspective.

“It’s hard to have a truly articulate conversation about technology if you don’t understand the business,” said Schweer.

That’s the “last mile” of software development: tying technology directly to business objectives, said Buzz Morley, e-business project manager at Cole Haan, a Yarmouth, Maine-based shoe and apparel maker. To do that, it’s not just IT workers who need to learn about the business. Often, business workers don’t understand even basic spreadsheet concepts, so they have trouble using the available technology to meet their business goals, Morley said.

If they don’t grasp the complexity of technology, business managers can doom projects by ignoring or fast-forwarding past important technological issues that could create problems later or minimize the benefits of a project, Harvard’s Austin said. For example, since the advent of Web architecture, systems have grown increasingly complex. There are so many new components in networks that there are more opportunities to gain efficiencies.

But Austin said there are also more risks that something will go wrong. Business managers who think “you kick butt to make a project work” rather than addressing the technology complexities as they arise can hurt a project, he said, because they can only sweep the problems under the rug for so long.

But it’s often easier to teach IT workers business skills than it is to teach nontechnical people technology, Austin said.

“There’s less of an eye-glazing effect,” he said.

Solomon is a freelance writer in New York. Contact her at