One of the questions that I have frequently been asked in my time as an industry analyst is: What do I believe are the hallmarks of a good IT department? In running IT Executive Forums, I’ve probably interviewed more than 500 CIOs, IT Managers and their reports over the years. In this time, I have come to recognise the common characteristics which reflect an IT department that seems to be on top of most things. Let’s start with some of the qualities I do not believe they possess. First, these IT departments do not bunker themselves down against the outside world. Invariably, good IT departments are open in their outlook, and actively seek to engage with their counterparts elsewhere. They appreciate that such interaction sharpens their thinking, introduces new ideas and challenge prejudices and preconceptions. The CIOs in charge have come to recognise that an IT department can only hope to improve its performance through such external dialogue.
Avoid a heavy tech focus
Next, good IT departments eschew a heavy technology focus. They never consider themselves to be the shop of an IT supplier, and they are willing to embrace solutions from any vendor. However, suppliers will find that these IT departments are not pursuers of the latest and greatest. Often, these organisations can be somewhat conservative in the technology they adopt, preferring to rely on what is proven and robust.
Their focus tends to be on addressing issues affecting the business, and on ensuring that that IT brings value to their executives. In this regard, one of the first qualities of a good IT department is that it has worked actively towards the resolution of what IS governance entails. Typically, the CIO in charge has impressed on the business an understanding of the part it must play if the organisation is to effectively exploit its information resources.
Unfortunately, this is usually easier said than done. CIOs regularly speak to me about their frustration in getting their business counterparts to either outline their plans and objectives or else in spending the time to talk about their needs and aspirations on project steering committees. Those who have overcome the hurdle of governance have invariably had to resort to some confrontation with the business to get their point across.
Another characteristic of a good IT department is an understanding of what constitutes best practices in the delivery of IT services. Frequently, these organisations obtain these insights by commissioning an operational benchmark. Such a study highlights what is achievable, what the IT department does well and where it needs to improve. Again, while this sounds highly desirable, it too has its complications.
Essentially, an operational benchmark entails paying an outside agency to measure the costs an IT department incurs in delivering services to the business. Such services could include a Data Centre, a Help Desk or a telecommunications network. These costs are then compared against a database of similar organisations around the world to show how a specific company compares with the world’s best practices. These studies highlight where an IT department has room for improvement, plus helps establish parameters around delivery costs and user expectations.
Research must be thorough
Unfortunately, a comprehensive study requires time and money. For comparisons to be meaningful, research has to be thorough. This can be tedious and requires experienced staff with sufficient knowledge of the data to do a sanity check of the values. Companies participating in an inter-company operational benchmark with a specialist consultancy are unlikely to see much change out of US$50,000. The challenge, then, is for the CIO to convince a business usually impatient for IT success that such an investment is more beneficial than some new whiz bang technology solution that is capturing the attention of the mainstream press.
Frequently, operational benchmarking is closely aligned with another attribute of good IT departments—a process-centric culture. In my opinion, the best IT departments actively seek to avoid reinventing the wheel. If something has to be done, it pays to document the process to ensure that there is some reference point for subsequent requests for the same service. For many, this trait is reflected in companies that have adopted ITIL, which aims to bring rigour to the provision of IT services.
Can do more with less
Many CIOs lament that business executives want more with less. Yet good IT departments know that this can be achieved by ensuring that when something is done, it is done right the very first time. Processes provide the framework to realise this goal, and documenting the processes ensures that knowledge does not reside in the heads of one or two key employees who may leave on a whim. In addition, this documentation helps new hires understand what they need to do to accomplish the tasks demanded of them.
Another quality that defines good IT departments is a strong project management philosophy. The CIO recognises that all projects should be implemented against set objectives and milestones for their achievement. The challenge here is to impose discipline. Most business people appreciate the importance of defining goals for every project and establishing yardsticks to measure progress. However, modern executives tend to be impatient for success.
All too often, IS managers are encouraged to just get on with it. It takes a strong personality to decline to do so until the objectives of the activity and the progress milestones are defined. Furthermore, the tasks most likely to escape project management disciplines are routine or small which, without proper guidelines, have a tendency to snowball. In my experience, those who have mastered project management have invariably embraced some form of a project office to scrutinise every business request, establish success parameters, define ownership and allocate resources.
Force of personality
In the final analysis, one common factor that surfaces at all good IT departments is a CIO who displays some force of personality in order to impress these qualities on the business. While this usually entails conflict, effective IT Managers capitalise on these confrontations and view them as a chance to establish some ground rules. Naturally, this necessitates a thick skin and is not for the faint-hearted.
However, perhaps more CIOs should ask what they stand to lose. Success establishes one’s career, and if the business does not wish to co-operate, there are plenty of other organisations that would be delighted to have an IS executive who is willing to help them make better use of their information resources. In fact, the current skills shortage in IT presents CIOs with an ideal opportunity to do just that. In the process, I think they will also establish a reputation for being CIOs who understand how to build an IT department that bears all the hallmarks of success.
Peter Hind is a freelance consultant and commentator with 25 years of IT industry experience. He is co-author of the IT Manager’s Survival Guide and has been running enterprise IT events across the Asia Pacific for more than a decade.
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