A client relationship management culture for IT? Why bother?
We're already one-tenth of the way through the 21st century, so I'm sure that by now you, as an IT leader, have heard that the most productive and effective IT function is one that is directly responsive to the needs of the business it serves. You've probably heard as well that in order to best serve the business in the way it needs, the IT function must have a "client relationship management culture," not a technology culture. You might even accept the idea that IT's very existence may depend on it moving from being an isolated technology management function to being a powerful and respected ally to the business.
Nonetheless, a good many of you at this moment could be thinking, "Right. That all sounds good in theory, but it has zero application to my shop here in the real world. We're too busy responding to urgent challenges and unrelenting deadlines to think about anything like that. We just don't have the budget or the time to make it happen, and I have my doubts that the business would even understand what we were up to. Besides, what would the measures of success be? We take our direction from the business, so we'll wait for the business to tell us how to make all of that happen."
I used to think the same thing, way back in the 20th century. But then I got a wake-up call.
A destructive myth
It seems perfectly natural to me for IT professionals to resist the call to better understand and more fully serve the business. Like many of you, I pursued a career involving technology because I had a keen interest in it, not in business. I believed that IT professionals didn't need business acumen -- a belief that's so widely held within IT's ranks that it has become a dangerous and destructive myth. Sure, I understood that the business's concern was making money, and I wanted IT to support that goal in every way it could. But anything beyond that -- anything proactive rather than reactive -- was not my responsibility.
My wake-up call came during a conversation with a member of the executive committee, whom I reported to. "We're very happy with how the IT function is productive and helping us avoid cost," he told me, and I was glad to hear it. But then he made it clear that the business expected more from us. "We'd be even more pleased if the IT team would occasionally bring us new ways that it could help us improve service and increase revenue." And then the kicker: "Could you see what you could do in that regard?"
My office was in another town, and the drive gave me time to think about that message. My team and I were being asked to introduce beneficial IT changes to improve business results. We were going to be expected to take the lead, whereas until then we had always waited around for new system requirements from the business.
And I had to admit to myself that I didn't fully understand what the business's customer acquisition or retention cycles were. I had a vague notion of the business's strategy, but not to the degree that I could influence the direction of the business with IT. If my knowledge was so sketchy, I had to assume that my staff knew even less.
What the business always needed
My team and I approached this situation in the way we were used to doing things: We treated this new directive as the latest requirement from the business, and we set about finding ways to meet it. We chose some of our application developers with the best interpersonal skills, and they set up meetings with the leaders of one strategic business unit. How, they asked them, could IT play a more effective role in their success? This seat-of-the-pants approach actually resulted in a couple of enhancements to the business unit's customer service process, and with one success behind us, we moved on to other aspects of this business unit.
It was gratifying that the business unit reported favorably on our initiative and that the executive committee heard positive things about it. But the real revelation for us was seeing the positive effect this initiative had on the IT professionals involved. They were energized by the chance to learn and be creative. They basked in newfound respect and the realization that they could have a positive impact on the business just by expanding their communication skills and by gaining business knowledge.
Getting the transformation skills we didn't have
It was a modest beginning on the road to a proactive partnership with the enterprise, but it was irreversible, as my team's competitive spirit kicked in. And as the good word about what we were doing spread, I was able to build a compelling business case for the special expertise we needed to improve our interpersonal and consulting training skills for our too technically oriented IT staff. It was clear that we could not do this without experienced and proven outside transformation specialists and we needed to ensure that our newly empowered IT professionals would be comfortable in the role of business consultant and communicator. Though these weren't the skills our IT professionals were hired for, they were sorely needed if the IT function was to become client relationship oriented (i.e., always take initiative, just as a partner to the business would) and have a known strategic business impact.
Part of IT, proud of IT
Best of all, through the fact that this transformation skill training, experienced coaching and guidance was being provided to all our IT professionals, it became obvious to them that the business actually wanted them to be fully engaged its their issues. No more destructive myth. Did this transformation motivate them to perform in response? Did these new skills build their confidence? Did ever more experience dealing directly with business peers demonstrate their ability to contribute? Once they were recognized for their initiative and their achievements, did their customer oriented focus and momentum build? As results improved, did their sense of accomplishment and reward improve?
Yes, and I've seen it happen more than once...
Did I hear someone ask how any of this activity could be measured? As the IT function developed a client relationship management culture, we found that we could now explain all three areas of IT -- plan, build and run -- in terms of how they avoided cost, improved service and increased revenue. And we could demonstrate that every new initiative and contribution we undertook helped the company achieve operational excellence, customer satisfaction and positioning for industry leadership, on a continuous improvement basis.
From reactive bystander to proactive partner
Of course, my wake-up call came from the business, with an executive telling me what was expected from IT. But this is the 21st century, and it is now quite possible -- it is even expected -- that IT will take such initiatives on its own. CEOs are ever more interested in the IT function as a source of beneficial change. They have come to believe that IT can lead the business to better ways thanks to its cross-functional view of the enterprise and knowledge of emerging technologies. And they aren't likely to think much of IT managers who don't believe that themselves.
Al Kuebler was CIO for AT&T Universal Card, Los Angeles County, Alcatel and McGraw-Hill and director of process engineering at Citicorp. He also directed the consulting activity for CSC Europe. He is now a consultant on general management and IT issues, as well as a graduate school lecturer at NYU, De Paul and UCLA. He is the author of the book Technical Impact: Making Your Information Technology Effective, and Keeping It That Way. He can be reached at email@example.com.