Of the many challenges I observe CIOs endure– perhaps the most painful is proving the efficacy of IT itself. IT leaders must constantly educate their peers around what IT actually does in the 21st century, and how these IT capabilities are crucial to the health and success of the business. Most often, these challenges stem from misconceptions about IT. To help dispel confusion around IT value, here are five common misconceptions IT leaders constantly confront.
IT is Mostly About Client Technology
IT primarily issues laptops and fixes printers, right?
Historically this may have been the case. And while IT still provides core services such as laptop provisioning and password resets, the information technology department of today thrives at the intersection of business and technology. Proof lies in the immense range of services the modern IT department provides: from complex campus networking to data warehousing and product management.
IT Is Just an Extension of Engineering
IT is often confused with engineering. In fact, many Silicon Valley companies position IT as a division which reports into the head of engineering. Moreover, there are plenty of IT professionals with “engineer” in their titles. So how are these two functions actually different?
First, IT and engineering have very different scopes. Within product-centric organizations, engineering’s mission is to build customer-facing products. This often means building and supporting a limited number of solutions that are used by a large volume of external customers.
IT, on the other hand, primarily deploys and manages hundreds of business applications used by hundreds or thousands of employees. Compared to engineering, IT manages far more apps, but for significantly fewer users.
Of course there are exceptions and grey areas in between. IT may manage a customer support website, a GDPR portal, or a marketing email preferences center which may all be used directly by external customers. Likewise, engineering may decide to fully manage their own internal tools like Jira or Git.
IT Is a Cost Center
This is an example of a broader fallacy; the assertion that departments which do not directly create revenue streams are somehow “less important” than profit centers which do engage in revenue-generating activities. For those who hold such an opinion I would challenge them to envision a top-notch development team without excellent HR recruiting, or perhaps try working-from-anywhere in a post-COVID world without collaboration tool standards.
It is true that IT spends money and typically doesn’t produce new revenue-generating products. But here’s something IT does all the time: optimize spend. From consolidating platforms to modernizing systems and getting products to market faster, IT is often the catalyst to vastly improving time to market and reducing costs. Somewhat ironically, many of the systems IT is brought in to optimize were built by those sexier profit centers.
IT is a bonafide business enabler, but don’t just take my word for it. The real litmus test for proving IT effectiveness within the value chain is quite simple: try taking money away from IT, then watch how many business leaders complain when mission-critical services are reduced or eliminated. IT doesn’t exist for IT’s sake; IT is the very fabric of the business itself.
IT Doesn’t Understand Business as We Do
IT people are not sales people, they’re not marketers, and they’re not accountants.
IT people are, however, responsible for ensuring those line-of-business systems conform to very precise business requirements. Therefore the argument that IT doesn’t understand business is akin to a Formula-1 driver accusing his mechanic of not understanding racing.
IT staff may not operate business systems with the same speed and efficiency of daily end-users. But IT people must possess a deep understanding of system capabilities not only to professionally manage the system, but also to identify business opportunities which may be otherwise missed. An example would be questioning a sales team which incrementally bolts on Salesforce add-ons when a more comprehensive approach to achieving customer success management is in order.
IT Doesn’t Build Products
Some argue that as most software is hosted within the cloud, IT doesn’t really “build” anything. But as the world of cloud computing emerged, so too did a slew of new challenges. API and data integration, identity and access management, data quality, and of course cloud security are all challenges with SaaS.
IT departments will build custom software applications from time-to-time, but this is a narrow definition of a product. A “product” is really the result of a refined, value-adding process. Additionally, products typically don’t manage themselves, so they need professional product management as well.
A great example of an IT product is ERP. A single vendor such as Oracle or SAP rarely satisfies all ERP needs, so an ERP platform is often a composite architecture; basically a solution composed of many sub-solutions, bound together with a complex data integration framework. Productizing this platform with a unified interface and user-friendly roadmap (conveying when “features” will be released) is also paramount.
These examples may not be traditional, but they are nonetheless genuine products of the 21st century enterprise.
Not all IT departments are created equally, and not all IT departments deserve the title of business partner. Such a title is earned through hard-won achievements and trust that is built slowly over time.
However, it’s clear that even modern and successful IT departments have a marketing problem. Building a world-class IT organization is practically moot if nobody understands its value proposition. Perhaps it’s time for CIOs to prioritize “IT marketing” as a key capability in their portfolio of services.