IT must know how to sell to management

Handle needs according to business priorities, analyst says

When a representative of the business you serve comes to you as IT manager and says “we want you to install Siebel”, it’s a sign that all is not well with the vital task of aligning IT with the business, says Kevin McIsaac of industry analyst Meta Group. “It means Siebel’s salespeople are better than yours.”

Make no mistake, he says, the business relationship managers in an IT department are salespeople, promoting the internal IT team as the source of ideas and expertise on improving the efficiency of the business.

Ideally, the relationship should never have deteriorated to that point, but if it does, it’s a measure of your staff’s skill how they succeed in keeping the discussion to “so you want to look at how IT can help you with customer relationship management,” McIsaac says.

Alignment with business objectives seems an obvious starting point for the practice of ICT, almost a “given”, but it is still in the top three concerns of IT management in Australia and the US, he told a BMC Software forum last week in Sydney. It’s obvious that the question is far from settled. BMC, with a core of products covering IT asset discovery and management and a number of strategic takeovers, such as that of the Remedy helpdesk business, is promoting business/IT alignment as its stock in trade and has clearly gained credibility from analysts such as Meta and Forrester, which said in a recent report that BMC had overtaken longer-established “business service management” companies like Computer Associates and IBM-Tivoli in the functions it provides..

The credibility of IT as an agent of business depends crucially on perception, McIsaac says. You don’t perceive the value of the air in a room until its pointed out to you, or suddenly taken away, he says; it is part of the function of IT to ensure that it is perceived as valuable to the business, as well as that it actually be so.

He plots a four-quadrant chart with “credibility of operations” as the horizontal axis and “business perception” as the vertical.

If the credibility of IT is high but business does not perceive its services as valuable, IT is in “limbo”. Your under-appreciated staff are likely to be bored; you’re seen as an expensive facility that the company doesn’t need and outsourcing looms as a likely fate, McIsaac says.

If business perception of IT’s value is high, but IT is not seen as delivering, “That’s Purgatory, the land of the revolving-door CIO”. As an aside, he mentions that the average stay of a CIO with one company in Australia has now improved to 36 months — it has been as low as 18 months.

No prizes for guessing the labels on the other two quadrants; Hell, the region of low expectations and low perceived performance, is where as many as two-thirds of IT departments really reside according to some surveys. As little as 5% are in the high-expectation, high-performance quadrant; “but even in Heaven, you’re like the Red Queen in Through the Looking Glass – you have to keep running to stay where you are.”

To improve one’s position, McIsaac advises “performance engineering”; the “techies” should see the operation more from the business point of view and vice-versa, and formal techniques should be applied to analyse and manage the “portfolio” of capabilities, prioritise projects according to their business value and “manage risk to reduce user pain”. He recommends Cobit (Control Objectives for Information and Related Technology) as a useful risk management tool.

Conventional measurements like “99.9% availability” can be fatally simplistic, he says. “There’s no point in 99.9% of the trains running on time if the ones that don’t are the four that most people take to and from work every day.”

An IT manager’s job is “to figure out what services the business wants, create them and provide them.”

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