6 tips for a better IT-business alignment

From ride-sharing to reverse IT embedding, CIOs are developing new approaches to bridge the gap between business and IT. […]
Would you like business decision-makers and IT to cooperate better, work together on projects and exchange information completely? If you're like most IT leaders, the answer is unequivocally yes. The benefits of closer collaboration between business and IT include projects that are more closely aligned with business goals, better change management, and greater adoption of new initiatives.
And that's not all: good cooperation with the specialist departments is a vital skill for today's IT leaders. In 2021, a Gartner study showed that more technologists were being recruited for non-IT roles than inside IT. Easy-to-use, cloud-based, no-code or low-code solutions are now available, allowing tech-savvy business people to manage much of their IT themselves without needing help.
"CIOs face a real challenge," said Darren Topham, senior director analyst at Gartner. “They can no longer afford to want to manage the entire IT inventory. There has to be some form of collaboration with other areas.”
It is clear that better cooperation between business and IT is a high priority for most executives. But how can this be implemented in practice? Here, five IT leaders share the strategies that have worked for them.
This approach has different names and characteristics. But it's always about IT staff systematically observing how their business colleagues do their work, which tools they use and how things could be improved.
When Darren Person joined market research firm The NPD Group three years ago as global CIO, he wanted to know how the departments work. "I've found that a lot of people who start at the C-suite level never really understand how a business actually works," he says.
This applies to both IT staff, who focus on a company's technology, and top-level executives, who are usually far removed from day-to-day operations. Because NPD is a data company and the CIO person oversees the data architecture, "I own the factory," he says. "So I felt it was extra important that I understand how it actually works."
Participants spend anywhere from a few hours to several days learning how the different parts of the company work. Above all, many new employees from different areas of NPD go through the program together, reports the CIO: "This also creates a closer relationship with colleagues with whom you would not normally work together."
One way to ensure that the IT department fully understands the needs of a department or line of business is to integrate an IT professional into the business team. He or she may still report to IT, or alternatively report across the department but work closely with IT.
This approach has proven itself, says Prithvi Mulchandani, vice president of IT business applications at software manufacturer Deltek. “We have teams across the company with names like Customer Care Operations or Financial Systems. They don't report to the CIO, they report to the CFO, Chief Customer Officer, etc. They're teams of more technical people, but they're business-centric.”
These people are hired by the business units, often in consultation with the IT department. "Their responsibilities typically include providing tier one user support, generating reports, and fulfilling user analytics and data needs," he says. "They also handle more traditional IT projects, for example when we have a problem with a certain business process and want to find out if there is a solution that we can buy and implement."
Although bringing IT pros into the line of business is more common, some IT leaders are finding success with the opposite strategy: bringing peers into IT. "I brought someone on the finance team who didn't know anything about IT," said Mike Vance, executive vice president of professional services at technology consulting firm Resultant.
“This person is now a scrum master at a large insurance company. Vance has often used this approach, hiring IT liaisons from other departments such as HR.
“The job is to make sure you understand exactly what the business is trying to achieve and then communicate that to IT,” explains Vance. “Because that is the gap that always arises. IT liaisons are already credible through their contacts in the business, since they come from there and are already familiar with the functions and challenges of the specialist department.
Cross-functional teams are one of the most effective ways of collaborating between business and IT. These bring IT professionals together with experts from other areas of the company to work together on a project or initiative. The duration of the cooperation can range from one month to three months or a year, says Topham.
This approach is becoming increasingly popular and formalized. Organizations are beginning to incorporate cross-functional teams into their org charts and are increasingly orchestrating their activities to ensure people with specific skills are available at the right time and in the right place.
One of the best ways to improve business-IT collaboration is to upskill non-IT staff. For this reason, many companies offer training programs in which IT staff teach their business colleagues about the IT systems used by the company.
These can range from simple “lunch and learn” sessions to formal training programs, such as at insurance giant Liberty Mutual, which has developed an in-house program to teach technical skills to its non-IT employees.
“It's a real curriculum, starting with a two-day foundation program,” says CIO Andrew Palmer. “We originally started with our top 100 executives, but we have expanded the program.” Since it started in 2019, around 1,000 Liberty Mutual executives have completed the program. Recently, the company decided to reverse the hugely popular program and develop insurance business courses for IT staff.
AppDirect CIO Pierre-Luc Bisaillion was previously CIO at Cirque du Soleil Entertainment Group, the governing body of the famous circus company in Montreal, Canada. The 120-strong IT department ran the applications that kept the company running, such as ERP and HR systems. When Bisaillion took his job, he found an IT department that needed a re-image. “The IT department found itself in a rather difficult situation: the IT in the basement and the WiFi never works. So not a very proud culture.”
The CIO set about making things better by restructuring the IT department. Where previously employees were grouped according to their specific roles, such as business analysts, project managers, or developers, he created dedicated delivery teams that brought those roles together to serve a specific area of the organization, such as HR, finance, or the creative department. This led to much greater transparency, clearer responsibilities and a prioritization of the projects.
At the same time, Bisaillion wanted to do something to improve the IT department's standing within the company and improve their self-esteem. Halloween was just around the corner, a time when the group of companies always held a costume parade around the main building. "As you can imagine, Halloween at Cirque du Soleil is a very important event that's celebrated throughout the organization," he says. He decided that the IT department should fully participate in the parade. The feedback from other departments was impressive.
"The IT department was now the center of attention, and not just as the team that provides WiFi," says Bisaillion. Gradually the attitude towards IT changed and the cooperation with the departments improved. "Our initiative didn't change everything right away," the CIO recalls. "But she opened the door to relationship building."
This article is based on a post from our sister publication, cio.com
*Minda Zetlin is a business technology writer and co-author of The Geek Gap: Why Business and Technology Professionals Don't Understand Each Each Other and Why They Need Each Other to Survive. She writes regularly for the media brands CIO and Computerworld.

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