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IT and the Adolescent Organization:
Time for a Vital, Strategic Role

by Dave Ramsden


Businesses go through several stages of evolutionary development and in each one they demand different things in order to survive and to prosper. In an organization’s early entrepreneurial beginnings, the focus lies in getting customers and generating enough revenue to stay alive. Centralized systems for managing workflow, delegated leadership, and formal business planning lay far off in the future, at a place each new business owner or CEO hopes to reach over time.

But as the successful business grows, these needs begin to emerge, often challenging the leadership of the organization to recognize that there are new requirements for both their leadership and the business’s functions. From an IT perspective, this entrance into the maturing phases of business growth can be an excellent opportunity to support and accelerate company performance. Moreover, if IT truly embraces its potential, this can be a transitional moment that allows it to develop a vital, strategic role in the organization.

There are many models which analyze the phases of business growth. Although there are many other outstanding sources on this topic, many of my thoughts reference the work of Neil Churchill and Virginia Lewis, who recorded the five stages of business growth, in a 1983 edition of the Harvard Business Review.  Whichever business expansion model is examined, however, one will undoubtedly recognize the period of growth in which a business struggles to progress from its initial success as a small business to a more mature organization which maintains sustainable growth.

If we compare this phase of the company’s growth to our own human development, it parallels adolescence. New opportunities are accompanied by awkward growth and frequent confusion. More significantly, though, the specific skills needed to deal with these opportunities (and hurdles) change as well.

Adolescence and the Executive Function

In middle schools, many students are challenged because the focus of learning shifts from primarily technical functions (such as reading or mathematics) to a new requirement for assuming more executive functions. These executive functions are skills like prioritization, delegation, organization, collaboration, and work planning. We may all recall that age when long term assignments and projects suddenly became a lot more complex.

Businesses at this adolescent stage feel pressure from the same challenges. The strengths of the organization need to transform.  The executive functions in any well-organized business become more essential every day. The company cannot rely solely on the success of its traditional product to solve all its problems. This is not to say that the company loses its identity, but it does go through an awkward period of change and adjustment to the new priorities at hand.

For example, the owner of a design firm may be a creative genius, but may also need help managing cash flow or setting up a quality assurance process. A brilliant engineering entrepreneur may have difficulty delegating work or be unfamiliar with HR best practices. Some executives cannot navigate this change. Some may be emotionally tied to the earlier corporate culture or to their role as the singular heroic leader. As a result, their companies may either fail or eventually migrate to new ownership. Other leaders may fair better, but never be able to push the company into the growth mode which is necessary to attain business maturity in later years.

Recognizing the Onset of Corporate Adolescence

So how can your IT department rise to the call and assist in helping the company through these difficult times? It can do so by recognizing the signs of these phases, understanding the larger business changes at work, and engaging strategically with executive leadership to augment the skills they need most. By truly understanding the business requirements of their company during their adolescence and recognizing the unique factors at work, IT workers can take advantage of this period to demonstrate powerful strategic value, and ultimately drive the performance of the organization to new heights.

To get your IT people launched in the right direction, it’s important to help them understand the hallmarks of a business entering adolescence. Here are some characteristics that define this stage:

  • An organization at this stage has already passed through the times when the owner did everything and constantly worried about adding clients, delivering product, and generating enough cash to break even. The owner is now withdrawing from day to day responsibilities.

  • The organization has lived to see the addition of functional managers, and responsibility for budgets and major decisions are beginning to be pushed out to them.

  • A growing sense of stability is developing, both in terms of client base and cash flow. The company is recognizing regular profits and reinvesting them into growth.

    Finally, systems are often unevenly deployed and departmentally isolated with little or no cross- functional capabilities.

This is the point when the leaders of the organization typically need to make a decision regarding future growth. To plunge into expansion mode, they must actively reinvest their profits into funding growth to drive the company into this new age. In doing so, they also introduce functional managers who are more forward-looking, and who work towards a vision of the future rather than managing the status quo. Such managers may be given responsibilities like developing their own respective budgets and collaborating to develop strategic plans to march forward as a united group.

The growing focus on the future, from developing shared vision to budgeting for growth and strategic planning, are all signs that an organization is going through a significant change. Thus your IT department must transform itself during this transition period from a functional cost center to a key strategic player with a seat at the executive table.

Transforming from Cost Center to Strategic Center

You the CEO needs help more than ever at this moment. Again, most entrepreneurs have outstanding skills in at least one key area, and that is how they are able to create and develop the success in which all of their staff share. But not all entrepreneurs have developed the skill of collaborating with a dispersed leadership team, nor that of accurately gauging their performance and managing toward strategic goals.

By anticipating these needs and recommending business solutions that are catered to them, your IT leadership can have a remarkable effect on the success of the company. Consolidating applications into systems that provide forward-looking intelligence will be crucial to effective strategic planning. And the ability to measure progress and tweak tactics accordingly will enable both CEO and functional leaders to be ever more nimble even as the company reaches its growth goals.

The IT function now develops into the architecture of the executive function itself. The infrastructure must be reliable and fast. The systems must be integrated and easily accessible onsite or remotely. More importantly, the applications must enable those same abilities we struggled to grasp in middle school. They must provide executive leadership with information that helps them collaborate, assess, prioritize, and organize. And they must provide the CEO with the ability to better coach and delegate to executive leadership. This way vision, strategy, and tactics are easily translated from the top to all levels of the organization.

CEOs can no longer be everywhere at once, though they may deeply wish they could. Their vanishing sense of control can cause real grief. Having reliable systems that keep interdependent functions running smoothly can be an enormous gift at this moment. Moreover, the ability to easily access performance metrics from these systems greatly aids in both tactical and strategic decision making. From process automation to collaboration, unified communications and decision support intelligence, IT must deploy the solutions that the new organization is going to need to truly thrive at this stage of its life.

The best IT leaders will recognize these signs and effectively introduce solutions that empower the organization to succeed. They will consult with leadership from the top down, creating business solutions which are instantly recognized as such, instead of technical solutions which may be less accessible to the C-level audience. And by focusing these solutions on the adolescent organization’s new need for analysis, planning, communication, and control, they will reveal their own strategic value in the vision of the future. As CEO, it is your job to help them realize this, and to help them achieve it.


The Author

Dave Ramsden

Dave Ramsden is Chief Intelligence Officer at Atrion Networking Corporation, where he is responsible for the Information Services team. His focus is on applying technology, process improvement and business intelligence to drive strategic execution across the organization. He has over 16 years of leadership experience working for companies such as Eastern Telecom, Data Comm Systems and Dimension Data. Dave can be contacted at

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Copyright 2011 by Dave Ramsden. All rights reserved.

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