What CEOs want, is not what the IT managers are delivering

There is a difference between form and function. IT people often deliver the form (systems, infrastructures, services), but our businesses want the function (well managed customer relationships, reduced costs, competitive differentiation, market disruption). This is the difference between outputs and outcomes – IT delivers outputs, business wants outcomes.

Researchers asked CEOs what they really want from their IT departments. Their answers are uncommonly consistent. They want: “IT without fuss, involvement in business improvements, and appropriate leadership.” Whenever we talk to IT management, there seem to be some invisible words here – they don’t see “without fuss”, they don’t see “involved” and they don’t see “appropriate” yet these are the clear outcomes required by CEOs – in fact these are the only words CEOs often see.

IT people focus on the form: “Deliver IT (we’ve got an SLA so that’s covered), business improvement (yeah, we deliver systems on time and in budget), and leadership (we’re subscribing to various research houses – we know what’s going on out there).”

However, business people want the function – “without fuss, involved and appropriate.” (Funny there’s not a lot of technology there). But that’s the point. Business wants business outcomes, and the technology is just the medium that business uses to deliver these outcomes. IT is not about the technology.

“IT” is no longer a noun – naming the department that deals with technology. “IT” is an adjective – it describes the area in which the IT department works to deliver business results. If you think of yourself as the IT department you’re focusing on the form. If you think of yourself as the business results department which uses technology to deliver these results, you’re focused on the function.

How does IT focus on business outcomes? The clue is above – don’t focus on the technology. That’s what outsource, and cloud service providers are for. They must survive in the technology area, so they must be deeply focused on the technology – its security, availability, service levels, upgrade paths, governance, processes, innovation and cost efficiency. If these things are occupying every moment of your IT department, then you’re missing a critical trick. Outsourcing and cloudifying still does need management attention, but if you get it right, this should only take up 20% of your IT manager’s time.

So, what does an internal IT department do. Again, the clues are above: “IT without fuss, involvement in business improvements, and appropriate leadership”. When asked, CEOs say they want these three focus areas to take up their IT manager’s time in the following ratio – 20 / 60 / 20. So, 60% of an IT manager’s time should be spent on ensuring business outcomes. One CEO said: “My IT manager has a unique perspective on my business from a technological point of view. But he is mired in the tech issues, and not on what outcomes the tech can provide my business. That’s why he’s not on the exco team. I don’t want a techie, I want a business person with a tech perspective.”. Another CIO of an airline attended his first exco meeting. The topic was the purchase or lease of three new planes. When the CEO asked him what his opinion on this was, the CIO said he didn’t have one because he was technically focused. The CEO said: “I’ll allow that this once, but in future, your job is to know the business and have an opinion about business issues.” The CIO took the advice, and after 10 years became the CEO.

IT managers need to understand the business and bring their unique perspectives to the table to improve business outcomes. Not techie outputs.

Finally, IT managers should spend 20% of their time on “leadership.” Why the quotation marks?” Because leadership from a technology viewpoint is about the management of meaning and attention: “What does a technology (new or old) mean for my business?” New developments like blockchain might mean little for the business, but the internet of things may be critical to a business breakthrough. Once the IT manager identifies a meaningful technology, the hard part starts. He or she needs to manage executive attention: Draw their attention to the technology, show the possible benefits, map out a way to begin using the technology, and understand the full costs. All of this must be compelling, understandable, and business results focused, or attention will be lost.