Digital transformation is flooding organizations of every size and sector, pushing information technologies further into the functions of every department. In turn, the expanding use of technology should be positioning IT professionals to expand their leadership roles in their departments and in their organizations overall.
For many, however, one thing stands in the way: The belief that a business is a team that does not include the IT department. This belief is deeply rooted and rarely questioned. Challenging it is the key to advancing the success of the organization, its technology-driven projects, and its technology-informed leaders.
Embracing the digital transformation deluge
In 2020, the pace of digital transformation accelerated dramatically as the COVID-19 pandemic forced companies to fundamentally rethink and revamp the way they work. With The 2021 Digital Readiness Survey, ManageEngine polled 1,210 qualified executives and technology professionals to assess how the pandemic and the remote work revolution affected their IT departments, especially in the areas of cloud usage, organizational security, and AI and business analytics. Among the survey participants:
84% increased their use of cloud solutions such as SaaS, IaaS, and PaaS
83% found that remote workers placed additional challenges on security
98% took some security action as a result of employees working remotely, from raising employee awareness to adapting the company’s security strategy
90% increased their use of business analytics over the last two years
86% increased their use of AI over the last two years
Keep in mind that this was a global survey, completed by participants in India, the United States, Canada, Singapore, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand. All participants were directly responsible for IT and procuring business technologies in their organizations, which ranged in size from 500 employees to more than 10,000 and represented vertical industries such as education, financial services, healthcare, manufacturing, retail, technology, and others.
In other words, these digital transformation trends are taking place on a global scale. And they will continue to do so, given that 94% of the survey participants plan to continue supporting remote work for the next two years.
Preparing for the IT leadership leap
As the role of information technology expands in the organization, the role of the IT professional promises to expand as well. The 2021 Digital Readiness Survey reinforces that promise. Among the survey participants:
85% trust their technology leadership team—CIO, CTO, CISO, CDO, CPO, VP Development, etc.—to lead their company into the future.
67% believe IT leaders make better CEO candidates than those from traditional roles such as sales, finance, and marketing.
While the stats are encouraging—especially regarding the IT leader-as-CEO candidate—most IT professionals who aspire to lead, regardless of level, must look beyond those survey numbers if they want to rise through the ranks. Likewise, aspiring leaders can’t base their ascent solely on pandemic performance, SysAdmin Day kudos, or their role in saving the organization from digital disasters.
The fact is, most IT professionals have a long road ahead of them if they want to be recognized as leaders equal to their peers in other, non-IT departments. As we’ll see below, to reach the end of that road, you’ll need more than stellar performance. You’ll also need to skillfully manage perception.
Facing the business/IT chasm
For decades, at least since the introduction of the Strategic Alignment Model (SAM) in 1990, IT has been viewed as an entity that is separate from and operates outside the business. Imagine two circles, side by side, close together but not touching. The first circle contains several smaller boxes. This circle is your business, and the boxes represent its constituent business units such as finance, operations, sales, marketing, research & development, facilities, human resources, and the rest. The second circle is your IT department.
When business and IT are separated by a chasm, as they are in SAM, the strategies guiding the two entities must be aligned if the business is going to take full advantage of the benefits that IT can bestow. Indeed, lack of business/IT alignment is often cited as a primary factor when IT projects fail to deliver desired business objectives.
While SAM endeavors to improve business outcomes, it does so at the expense of business unity. IT is excluded from the business team and sits on the sidelines as the only department that must explicitly align itself with the business.
Think about it: We don’t question business/HR alignment when new hires are found lacking or question business/finance alignment when quarterly revenues are off. Every other department is understood as an integral part of the business, and poor performance or failure is not a call to improve business alignment.
The IT department is the lone outsider and has spent the past 30+ years being reminded of its outsider status whenever discussions of business/IT alignment take place. The gap between the IT department and the business creates challenges to successful IT projects and creates obstacles for rising IT leaders. A better way forward is to close the gap and unify the organization, making the IT department an integral part of the overall business.
Unifying the organization
A key step towards unifying the business is to stop talking about business/IT alignment and start talking about business performance instead. This recommendation from Gartner underscores the problems created by focusing on business/IT alignment: It distracts from focusing on the goals and objectives of the rest of the business, and it reinforces the idea that the IT department is external to the business rather than an integral part of it.
To keep IT conversations focused on business outcomes and business performance, frame IT department goals in the context of overall organizational goals like driving customer growth, improving retention, or introducing new products.
Forrester offers related, business-oriented steps on the path to unity. First, IT professionals need to demonstrate business savvy year-round. Engaging in business discussions throughout the year lets business peers perceive the value that the IT department can offer when it’s time to plan business strategy.
Second, be flexible. Business conditions and market forces change constantly, so revisit technology strategies on a regular basis and revise them if they are no longer appropriate for prevailing business conditions.
When positioned as an entity that’s external to the business, the IT department is typically viewed as a cost to be managed. As an integral member of the business, IT is seen as an enabler of strategic advantage, giving the business a competitive advantage through technology-driven capabilities.
IT becomes a platform for opportunity in a unified business, and conversations revolve around possibilities instead of costs. IT leaders evolve from order takers to strategy makers, influencing business strategy and helping to determine which projects have the most business value.
IT has always been an integral part of business. Now, it’s time for IT to be seen, heard, and embraced as an integral part of business. Unity is the way forward for IT professionals and for the organization as a whole as it travels the road to business success.