A business sensibility is not just what your IT staff learns in an introductory MBA course. It's not about how to read a spreadsheet or build a budget. What it's really about is thinking and acting like a businessperson.
For years, members of the CIO Executive Council have been concerned that their staffs lack real business understanding in such areas as their company's market, its external customers and other business drivers. In response, Council members have created a formal learning community -- Leadership Advancement Pathways -- for their direct reports. Veteran CIOs act as faculty for the yearlong curriculum. Pathways and other formal programs are one tool in the business education portfolio (see "All About Training"). But staff must also cultivate an on-the-job business sensibility. To that end, Council members are immersing staff in the business environment.
You Have Been Invited to a meeting. . .
It's one thing for IT staff to meet with users and business peers for a project review. It's quite another to have staff interact with senior business executives on a regular basis. Cathie Kozik, corporate vice president of supply chain IT at Motorola, invites her information visibility analyst to participate in senior business leadership's quarter-close meetings so he can see firsthand how the operational performance data points he produces are used to make decisions. "It's a real aha! moment," says Kozik. The analyst takes what's he's learned back to his desk to brainstorm new ways to slice the data and contribute new types of information that will have business value. Kozik's team also regularly sits down with members of the business to do a "look back" and "look ahead" on how information is being used and how it could be used, says Kozik.
Stewart Gibson, senior vice president and CIO at USI Holdings, asks his senior staff not just to participate in IT steering-committee meetings with senior business leaders, but to actually run them. To be effective, leaders really have to know the business and speak the language, says Gibson.
IT-business executive interaction works well even on the small scale. Brian Tennant, CIO at Bethesda Lutheran Homes and Services, has eight individuals on his IT team. "Our department is too small to worry about creating formal opportunities to increase business sensibility," says Tennant. Instead, he routinely asks staff to join him for meetings with members of the Bethesda senior management team. The benefits of these types of meetings are cumulative as Tennant's team gets more exposure to (and new perspectives on) the business's goals. "After participating in meetings with the CFO, my programmer will go back to his desk and rethink the way we deliver financial data. He thinks about what the CFO is trying to accomplish and the intended audience," says Tennant.
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