Keeping management up to speed with IT
If you don't, the vendors will
From time to time, reports emerge suggesting that senior business people, such as the financial director (FD), are becoming more IT savvy and more involved in IT decision making.
True though this might be, it's important not to get carried away with what it means in practice. Are we seriously expecting FDs to be grilling vendors on the capabilities of their systems management software, or what exactly the vendor means by phrases such as "straightforward upgrade path", "easy to integrate", "all based on open standards", etc? While it might be a sales rep's dream to drive business through purely non-technical decision makers who don't have the knowledge and experience to ask the awkward questions, it's probably not in the best interests of the organisation for this to happen.
Clearly, however, FDs and other executives are involved in prioritising spend and approving budgets and business cases in line with business requirements and objectives. This is something they do across all parts of the business as they juggle the allocation of funds between investment in buildings, plant and machinery, marketing, sales, R&D, and so on, as well as IT. If someone like an FD is doing their job well, they will therefore learn enough about all of these areas so they can converse effectively with the specialists in each department, participate productively in strategy discussions, and make better sense of the plans and proposals that are put to them for review and sign-off.
In an ideal world in which business and IT activities are well aligned, executives should therefore be tuned in to the IT strategy at a high level, with the specialists in the IT department taking care of the details of IT service delivery.
Sometimes, though, it doesn't all quite hang together in the way it should, and there is a danger that IT vendors who engage business executives directly can unduly influence an organisation's IT strategy in line with their own agenda. While FDs generally don't have the time, inclination, or level of knowledge to get involved in the specifics of technical product evaluation and selection, vendor sales people often beat a path to their door and pitch to them directly anyway.
The danger then is that they are delivered "business oriented" visions, which are very compelling, but fail to address real world practicalities and considerations. It's then that we can end up hearing statements such as: "I think we should phase out all of our unix servers and replace them with Windows so we can save money and take advantage of Microsoft's flexible and agile architecture", or questions like "What are our plans to build an Enterprise grid?"
As IT vendors, the big ones especially, are increasingly targeting business executives with their sales and marketing activities, it is becoming more important than ever that the internal IT department has the boardroom beat well covered. There is a lot that goes on in the IT department that business executives don't need or want to know about, but when vendors are hitting them with business spins on the latest infrastructure and architecture concepts and buzz words, it is easy for misunderstandings and disjoints to arise.
The ability for internal IT staff to effectively articulate the same concepts and ideas - utility computing, grid computing, service oriented architecture, software as a service, etc - to the business management audience in the context of the organisation's own business and IT landscape, is therefore critical to maintaining harmony and keeping things on track.
The truth is that this is something IT should always have been doing, as executive education and awareness in relation to high level IT concepts is a pre-requisite for effective communication and coordination.
But saying it is easier than doing it, especially as hot concepts and ideas are often poorly or inconsistently defined at an industry level. If you are an IT pro reading this, for example, how clear is the meaning of some of the latest industry buzz phrases and acronyms in your own mind? If they are clear to you, how should they be explained to non-technical managers who may need to agree to investments that allow you to take them on board?
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