Friday, August 4, 2017

How Can Non-IT Leaders Step into the “IT Wonderland”

Business and technology are forever interwoven, so should the CIO and the non-IT executive team.

IT is now permeating into almost all key processes of the business, and it is the key element to shape a differentiated set of business capabilities which underpin strategic executions. Companies that leverage information and technology effectively to create key differentiation among the competition is usually much successful than those who don't. IT management is not just the business of IT organization, but the core management discipline of the entire company. Therefore, to bridge IT-business gap, on one hand, IT leaders should become business savvy and learn how to speak the business language; on the other hand, non-IT leaders need to understand IT better and realize how critical about the IT role to lead the business success. Here are three competencies non-IT leaders need to build for stepping into the IT wonderland.

First, conceptual thinking: Generally speaking, conceptual thinking is the ability to understand a situation identifying patterns or connections, and addressing key underlying issues as well. It is the ability to see the impact of actions before it exists. Practicing conceptual thinking can help digital leaders today bridge the difference and unify the common view between business and IT. Senior leaders play the critical role in setting principle and policies, making strategic decisions. Thus, conceptual thinking is the ability for them to see the impact of actions before it exists. When non-IT leaders peer through IT wonderland, they need to be independent of the subject but also bring outside-in view and business perspectives. Of course, this is necessary for any senior executives. Conceptual thinking is important for senior leaders because it enables “abstraction” - being able to step back from details and see patterns, generalization, standards, context, and a bigger picture, without getting distracted by trivial details. Thus, the opposite thinking pattern of conceptual thinking is silo thinking. The functional managers only focus on their piece of puzzles, without a holistic understanding of the entire business, including the critical IT piece. The business managers tend to respond to silo by reorganizing, but this is hardly ever the most important aspect or the place to start. What you need to do is to change thinking. At their heart, silos are not a structural issue, they are the result of poor thinking, lack of holistic thinking and conceptual understanding. Nowadays, almost all critical processes include IT as a key ingredient. Hence, every digital leaders should have a certain level of IT understanding in order to break down silos, they have to practice conceptual thinking, not only provide clear process guidelines but also see that the teams are embracing cross-functional collaboration and taking customer-centric effort as well.

Second, sound judgment: Non-IT executives collaborating with IT must create an environment where they will apply conceptual thinking in such a way, that they can look at "the idea" and determine from multiple angles, make sound judgment, whether such an idea will succeed. Technology is critical to the foundation and future of all industries, don't roll over. From the investment perspective, there's really no fundamental difference between an IT investment and any other kind of investment. When board directors or senior leaders have sufficient knowledge and understanding about IT, they can make sound judgment about IT investment and know how to assess IT performance objectively. Before the investment is made, the requestor should be required to identify specific measurable results from the investment. Nowadays, it is very difficult to figure out any business solutions to complex business problems without IT ingredients in it. Therefore, business should know how to express a problem in the desired end state with elements of performance sampling points that could be leveraged to determine whether the effort is moving in a positive or negative direction. When CIOs get invited to the big table, this is a phenomenal opportunity for CIOs to educate other executive leadership teams on the value of IT and how they can help to accelerate the leadership's strategy and agenda coming and for the future years.

And third, complexity mindset: Due to change and complex nature of technology, there is the learning curve for non-IT leaders to truly understand the breadth and depth of IT management discipline. It is not just about the trendy technology gadgets or fancy web interface, or a help desk only, IT is the nerve system of modern business. Thus, business managers need to be equipped with the complexity mindset to understand IT with a certain degree of profundity, not about knowing every nut or bolt, but eager to build a close relationship with the CIO and vice versa. Together as a team, they can achieve the business synergy that cannot be achieved as individuals. The skills can be learned, but it all comes down to relationships and what is best for the organization. Through close communication and collaboration, both CIOs and other C-levels should understand where IT fits into the business like they understand where every part of the business fits into servicing the customers. As the say’s going "if you can't say it simply, you don't understand it." When business executives truly understand IT and contribute to brainstorm the next IT best practices, they actually follow the “Keep it Simple” principle to optimize IT and enable IT to truly solve the right business problems in the right way.  

IT is no longer just a commodity, IT now needs more business guidance, communicate more often, and work more collaboratively with both senior executives and other functional leaders to tailor business needs and deliver value. IT is an integral part of the business, business and technology are forever interwoven, so should the CIO and the non-IT Executive team. When business leaders are curious enough to step into IT wonderland, and think IT as their strategic partner, they can work closely, build the trust, and integrate IT and business as a whole to accelerate business performance and maximize digital potential.


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