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Building greater business acumen in your IT department

Building greater business acumen in your IT department

Use a blend of formal training and experiential learning, advises Lily Mok of Gartner.

Employees who are equipped with greater business acumen will gain access to opportunities that broaden their knowledge, skills and career paths beyond IT.

As a CIO, you understand the importance of taking digital to the core of the business. You know that to succeed, the company must find innovative ways to implement technology in all of its functions. Your job is no longer to just run the IT office, but also to find solutions to enterprise-level challenges.

As the IT environment evolves from an IT-centric, industrialised model to a more business-centric, digitalised one, the challenge as a CIO is how to get the message to your people and help them understand the role of IT in the company.

If the IT organisation is to move beyond optimising IT operational efficiency to driving business effectiveness, value creation and growth, your role is to help your people build business acumen. This will enable them to combine their technology know-how with a broad understanding of market, industry and customer needs and wants. Then they can apply them in the discovery, design and implementation of digital solutions that create new business value and growth.

As well as benefitting the organisation, employees who are equipped with greater business acumen will gain access to opportunities that broaden their knowledge, skills and career paths beyond IT, all of which are key to improving job satisfaction, professionalism and marketability.

How to build greater business acumen

While making business acumen an IT workforce competency isn't a new concept, CIOs are often unclear on which approaches are effective in acquiring and improving business acumen to enable IT to progress to a higher maturity level.

Following are some best practices to guide you:

1) Establish systematic communication practices

Use communication strategies to consistently link the role of IT, and its activities and performance, to the business strategy and performance. Through systematic communication practices, you will be able to contextualise the important changes in the business in a timely manner and their implications on IT strategy and plans. This ensures individuals and teams clearly understand their roles and the level of contribution expected from them, and to continuously inspire actions and commitment from the workforce to deliver and improve business results.

Ensure that business acumen is hard-coded into every IT job or role description, with clear performance expectations set per role level

Lily Mok, Gartner

2) Define business acumen requirements by role

According to the 2016 Gartner CIO Agenda Survey, business knowledge/acumen is the second most frequently reported, biggest talent gap that CIOs are trying to fill in support of digital business. Ensure that business acumen is hard-coded into every IT job or role description, with clear performance expectations set per role level to drive behavioural change and business impact.

3) Evaluate competency levels to identify gaps

If you’re looking to aggressively build business acumen in your IT organisation, first assess the current competency levels of your staff against desired, role-based requirements. Pay specific attention to those in key business/customer facing roles. Also, ensure business acumen is assessed as a core competency when considering an employee for a promotion or a lateral career move, or when hiring new people from outside the company.

4) Use a blend of formal training and experiential learning

Ensure that business acumen is a key area of focus in IT professional development programs. The appropriate mix of formal training, on-the-job coaching/mentoring and development activities will vary by role and by level of business acumen to be developed.

If your IT organisation aims to become the change agent or transformation leader, you will need to incorporate design thinking approaches in development activities to help staff shift to an "outside-in" mindset, and engage and work collaboratively with the business to innovate and design solutions that satisfy customer needs to the fullest extent.

As digital business opportunities grow, the role of IT in working with the business becomes more critical than ever.

CIOs that embrace design thinking approaches along with business acumen development across IT will be able to accelerate the experiment and delivery of innovation and an improved customer experience.


Lily Mok is a research vice president with Gartner’s CIO research group, focusing on helping CIOs and their IT organisations improve the capabilities, performance and contribution of the IT workforce. Areas she researches and provides advice on include strategic workforce planning, organisational structure, job family and role design, competency models, recruitment, employee engagement, reward, retention and career development. She will be speaking at Gartner Symposium/ITxpo 2016 on the Gold Coast, Australia, 24-27 October.

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