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When I started my new role as CIO at a large college, I spent time meeting with other executives in order to introduce myself and find out from their perspective how the IT department had provided services. I was somewhat shocked when the theme of many of the answers came back something like this – “IT folks are nice people, but I’m not really sure what they do”. Many saw us as a large budget, and a huge team (over 100), and while they liked us as people, they weren’t sure we needed the large budget, or the large team (this is not comforting coming from the CFO).

A secondary theme of the answers was “IT couldn’t help us do what we need, so we are doing it ourselves.” Two of the departments in the school had formed their own shadow IT departments. This was a marked contrast to the excellent innovation, creativity and world class implementation of hardware, software and systems I saw when I interviewed my new team.

Where was the disconnect?

I thought long and hard about it. So what was the answer? It was that IT does not play well with others.

Which brings me to the topic of the post: collaboration.

Aside from Finance, IT is one of the only departments that is horizontal – working with every department and function within the organization.  We offer great value in our exposure to all of the parts and processes, and our knowledge of how things fit together.

This can create a potential problem where the CIO works in isolation from the other departments, since we feel confident we know what is needed.  This is a sure fire way to alienate your users.  How many stories do we hear about “IT forcing solutions on us”?

At conferences for CIOs, there always seem to be sessions on dealing with ‘shadow IT’ and ‘rogue IT’ groups.  This is just proof than many IT leaders think the problem lies with the ‘business’, not IT. What is more likely happening is that departments can go out and buy the IT services they need with much less hassle or resistance than they get from your department.

That’s right. You are being bypassed.

As long as IT departments are seen as the gatekeepers or cost overhead, they will become increasingly bypassed and less essential.

The IT department must transform itself to the role of integral service provider – shifting from the concept of “controlling machines” to “enabling people to work faster/better/innovatively using tools”. Get rid of the control mindset or you will become increasingly irrelevant.

Learning to be an enabler requires that you engage and involve your user community through collaboration. This is a crucial survival skill for today’s IT leader.

Collaboration in practice looks like this:

You actively seek out and engage your stakeholders.  You know their pain points, their projects, their goals and their dreams as well as they do.

  • At first you ask to attend their planning meetings as an observer, but to learn (not to pontificate). You are now invited to the planning sessions as a contributor.
  • You have discarded waterfall methodology to develop new applications. You’ve implemented a highly interactive, iterative methodology.  Non-IT people are now part of your project teams.
  • You’ve brought in, (or trained) strong project management professionals to ensure that all projects are managed well, and all stakeholders are kept informed. Note: I’m not talking about someone calling themselves a project manager. I’m talking about a certified professional. If you haven’t got the talent internally, bring in an expert.
  • You’ve taken down the “if you build it, they will come” poster from your wall, and replaced it with “find a need, and fill it”. You will have much better results.
  • You throw out your strategic IT Plan, and replace it with a section in the organizational strategic plan. IT requirements are now woven into all into all strategic initiatives. They are not an afterthought at the end of the project.
  • The other executives in your organization can articulate how IT has helped their department be successful.
  • You resist the urge to sit in your office and command the ship.  You are constantly out engaging with your stakeholders. You, your directors and managers are well known by other key stakeholders in the organization.

And I bet you thought I was going to talk about collaborative tools such as Apple’s Facetime, Microsoft Skype for Business, and video conferencing?  These are just tools to achieve the collaboration skill you need as a 21st century technology leader.

IT’s influence is everywhere.  As the IT leader, you and your team should be known everywhere as well. Otherwise, it may be easy for departments (or individuals) in your organization to end run you to find solutions.

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CanadianCIO Census 2016 Mapping Out the Innovation Agenda
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