Z energy shows how to tear down the walls

The traditional IT shop is dead, says David Scott, head of business technology and transformation at fuel distribution company Z Energy. He is speaking of the team that sees itself as purely concerned with operationally efficient information technology, provided as a service to “the business”.

“The business” and “technology” can no longer be seen as separate entities, Scott told an audience at the ITEX conference in Auckland.

Operational excellence is part of the recipe, but it’s no longer sufficient if you aim for a properly technology-enhanced business — and for a seat at the executive table.

IT should stop talking about “the business” and refer instead to “our business”, he says. That business is something for which IT and the executive and line-of-business management are jointly responsible and make decisions collaboratively.

With this thinking, IT’s role in the business changes from prescriptive to collaborative, from control to empowerment, from technology-speak to business terminology and from exercising constraints on the business to discovering and presenting opportunities.

“Business technology is the art of listening to your business and understanding what matters to them,” Scott says. This sometimes involves members of the IT team in aspects of the business that are nothing to do with IT.

The traditional separated approach, Scott says, was never going to work at Z, which set out in April last year to be a “world-class Kiwi company” taking over the fuel distribution and associated business formerly known as Shell — a far-reaching transformation of the local arm of an international company into a self-sufficient New Zealand operation.

Z Energy business transformation office manager Mark Clayton says IT had to do the traditional operational efficiency stuff first — the basic financial and business information systems, infrastructure and productivity tools — in order to earn a “ticket to the dance”; the right to sit at the business table and make the more exciting decisions for the future of “our business”.

There was some initial suspicion and misunderstanding, says Scott.

“When we started doing this we found they’d see us as ‘the IT guy or girl’ and ask us the usual IT questions — my phone’s not working or my laptop’s broken. It took a few months to get over that; for them to realise we were there to listen to what they were talking about, the problems they were having in the business [and suggest] the technology solutions to help them achieve their outcomes.

“So it was a big mind shift for ‘the business’; they didn’t see us just as IT any more; they started to refer to us as part of this solution”.

And if the collaborative atmosphere results in the non-IT businesspeople coming up with a solution “so much the better”. The same applies to business-initiated technology acquisition. “If they get out the credit card and want to buy a few tablets, it’s not about saying no, it’s about saying why, and how we can work with them to make that work and about feeding the results of that collaboration into the organisation.”

A particularly important skill is “generous listening”, says Clayton; “listening really hard, not just thinking that you’re listening.” After taking care to listen, he says, you should feed back saying “what I heard you say was…”, to check that you heard and understood correctly. “If we do that more, we’ll start to understand from the business technology perspective what is important to our business; half the battle is getting our business to feel that they’re being heard.”

The business technology destination has not been reached yet; “It won’t happen overnight,” says Scott.

“We can talk to you about what we’ve done and what we’ve been able to achieve; but we’re just starting the journey. We’ve got our ticket to the dance and we’re showing some good moves.

“If anyone sits there and says they’ve got a highly functioning business technology shop fully integrated with the business, with all the understanding that involves, and they’re sitting at the leadership tables — I’d like to talk with them,” he says.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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