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Getting in Sync

Getting in Sync

Given IT's impact, it would be natural to conclude that IT departments and the CIOs who run them are heroes. You would be wrong. Despite the dramatic and revolutionary changes implemented by IT, the IT department is still treated like a necessary evil in many companies

Your reputation for performance depends on your ability to align with end users

I started my career in IT in 1965, when I worked as assistant to the production manager for a company called Data Processing Consultants. I retired in December 2004 as the CIO and senior vice president, international and technology, with Ace Hardware. During those 40 years, I've witnessed the seminal events of the information age, from the introduction of the IBM 360 computer (the first family of mainframes with compatible operating systems) to the emergence of the Internet and wireless technology.

We all know how IT has revolutionized business. In a speech last year, Alan Greenspan credited IT in part for the resilience of the US economy in the face of "stock market crashes, credit crunches, terrorism and hurricanes - blows that would have almost certainly precipitated deep recessions in decades past".

Given IT's impact, it would be natural to conclude that IT departments and the CIOs who run them are heroes. You would be wrong. Despite the dramatic and revolutionary changes implemented by IT, the IT department is still treated like a necessary evil in many companies.

We still have the reputation of taking too long, not delivering exactly what is needed and not being sensitive to the needs of the corporation. CIOs' job tenure is still relatively short, averaging just under five years. Nicholas Carr has convinced many non-IT executives that IT doesn't matter. Lacking a fundamental understanding of the value of IT, companies outsource some or all of the IT department. Many CFOs still look at IT as a cost rather than an investment. I've even heard comments by IT professionals suggesting that this is not a good career for their kids to pursue.

Painful as it is to admit, this is our fault, because we fail to exercise leadership among our senior executive peers. We don't demand a strict adherence to the basic rules of project management, we're too willing to accept the blame, we're not always sensitive to the needs of the business and we fail to communicate our achievements.

Stop Taking the Blame

IT departments are staffed by people who thrive on getting systems to run. To many of them, time and budget is less important than getting it right. But business executives expect performance. When CIOs aren't skilled at setting expectations or are not at the table when decisions are made, oftentimes IT bears the blame if something goes wrong with the technology.

It's up to CIOs to change this mind-set by making sure business users and IT collaborate on systems development. CIOs should not allow development to go forward without clear specifications from users (who tend to hope that IT can figure out what they want). CIOs must also insist that when users make major changes during development, these are documented and that user management signs off on new costs and time lines.

Several years ago Ace implemented an incentive program for developers that paid off only if they achieved the agreed-upon budget and time line for a project. Immediately, they took their collaboration with user departments more seriously. Both users and developers realized that there was a strong incentive to maintain the original schedule and put requests for additional functionality into future phases of a project.

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