Leading IT Amidst Radical Change: AlwaysOn

Change is a constant in the IT world, and the rate of change seems to accelerate every year. IT companies, departments and individuals face a continual challenge to evolve the way they do business. Some fail to act and some succeed, but the tactics which get them by often boil down to no more than reactive adjustments. And while many people observe that our survival hinges on navigating these changes, only a select number realize that our ultimate success depends more on leading them.

These select leaders take the time to put technology solutions into the greater context of the business itself: its high level goals and needs. Moreover, they never lose sight of the human relationship with technology. In this manner, they take full advantage of the ways in which technology can accelerate an entire workforce, not just a process. More importantly, they turn change into an opportunity to acquire strategic value, and to transform the whole role of IT in their environment.

In times of change we need to navigate clearly. In order to do this, it helps to have a philosophy to rely upon, because many of our old assumptions fall into question. AlwaysOn is a business philosophy designed to help IT professionals succeed in demonstrating strategic value, and to ultimately produce compelling results within their organization. AlwaysOn has five key tenets, but they all share common elements which focus attention on high-level business goals and end user experience. By referencing the AlwaysOn framework of ideas, IT professionals can make better decisions as they tackle the changing environment around and ahead of them.

The phases of change modulate. Sometimes things creep along, and at others times a major paradigm shift occurs. By all accounts we are experiencing one today as the internet reshapes industries, relationships and society. It is a good time to be aware of the potential around us. We have an opportunity to create a vision of what IT will be in the future. Will IT remain tucked away in the unseen operations of a company, or will it take on a role at the core of corporate strategy? Will the IT department of the future shrink with every effort to control costs, or will it positively influence the success of the organization? What kind of example will we build?

If we have hopes of creating a shining example, the proverbial “city on a hill”, we must first admit that a more realistic metaphor today is to recognize IT as a gated community. We see the evidence in conversations on any sunny weekend. Picture a neighborhood barbeque where friends ask each other about their jobs. Many reference a company name or an organization in their answers “I work for General Electric,” “I’m a Partner at Ropes and Gray,” or “I’m a State Officer.”

But the technology professional? He or she simply states: “I’m in IT.” The connection to the greater organization, to the community as a whole, is diminished. The passion for the broader enterprise slips away, unseen, and an invisible wall is subtly recognized.

Why so segregated? Perhaps it is because IT is a unique discipline now common to all companies, ostensibly removed from the greater organization’s reason for being. Perhaps it is because IT often carries a negative stigma, developed after years of only appearing when something went wrong. IT says “no” to departmental technology requests. IT talks about governance and restrictions of use. IT sets realistic expectations and takes systems down for maintenance windows. IT is a cost center, not a strategic player. And let’s face it, many of us who practice IT are just plain different from our peers.

It’s no wonder that the highest levels of IT leadership often stop at middle management, ultimately reporting to a C-level executive such as a CFO or COO, rather than interfacing directly with the CEO of a corporation. The prevailing mindset accepts that this model works. It may not provide huge benefits to the company’s corporate goals, but it controls costs and keeps things running. Supposedly, this model does no harm.

But does it? Amazing changes in the business world are happening more and more frequently because the place of technology is changing, and some businesses and whole industries are seeing their world upended because they did not recognize the opportunities or the risk of ignoring them.

Just ten years ago traditional brick and mortar bookstores did not rely heavily on IT, and a website may have been non-existent or a minor responsibility of the Marketing department. But we all know that with the introduction of online bookseller amazon.com, the entire bookselling industry was transformed until the old way of doing business was actually detrimental to success. Today we see chains of brick and mortar resellers such as Borders closing stores and desperately trying to capture more of the online market in order to survive.

Additionally, there was a time when every member of generation X possessed a Sony Walkman to listen to music wherever they went. When mp3 players and iPods entered the market, Sony ignored the risk. In a short time they went from having a virtual monopoly of the market share to being sold in the used electronics bin at rummage sales. Meanwhile, competitors such as Apple leveraged this opportunity, revitalizing their business by recognizing the changing landscape and acting on it.

Are all IT leaders capable of leading changes as dramatic as these? Perhaps not. But the rise of Amazon and iPods are tangible examples demonstrating our potential to be catalysts for change. And, just as the best engineers understand they may own a piece of a larger technological solution, the best IT leaders need to understand their solutions as part of the greater business process. When we understand what the endgame is for the organization, we better understand how to help reach those goals. This requires a fundamental shift in our perspective. No longer can we afford to isolate ourselves, to brand ourselves as merely IT. We must adamantly join the larger organization, not just as members, but as outspoken leaders and representatives of it.

In order to do this well, it takes a real shift in attitudes and behavior. We need to remove ourselves from the day-to-day and get a better perspective on the big picture and the big goals. It is not just a matter of how we introduce ourselves to the neighbors. We need to invest our time in understanding the needs of the end users, the business goals they strive for, the functional processes and the cross-functional processes that need to excel in order for the company to be successful.

We also need to re-examine our lexicon, because words are powerful. Instead of Break/Fix issues we should begin to talk about the End User Experience. Instead of Project Timelines we should discuss Business Impact. And instead of Technical Functionality the conversation should focus on Business Value. Effective communication is a doorway to changing mindsets and making things happen.

We are in a unique position in IT. Our current situation actually enables us to affect organizational change more than almost any other part of the company. IT lies at the hub of everything that happens within an organization. Every application, every process and every user interacts with us in one way or another. With the exception of finance and HR, no other facet of the company has such a comprehensive tie-in to the business. This puts us in a great position. Leveraging those relationships can be a powerful way to lead and affect company-wide improvements.

As Atrion looked more closely at these ideas, we came to understand that we had to change the way people think and behave. In order to facilitate this, we had to provide a high-level framework to which IT professionals could subscribe when thinking and acting day-to-day. We developed the AlwaysOn Philosophy: a framework or mindset to apply to what we do. At its highest level it consists of five core tenets to be explored and used to shape our perspective and actions:

  1. Follow the money: IT must understand the business, and we in the IT industry must be business people first.
  2. Start with the end in mind: The end-game is not about technology. Understand the real goals we are pursuing and reverse engineer solutions.
  3. Focus on the end user experience: Most organizations’ largest investment is in the people they employ to produce business success. The impact of IT on the end users and their productivity is vital to our success.
  4. Manage from the business process perspective: If we begin to see priorities and issues in terms of business processes instead of technology components we better understand their true impact on the organization.
  5. Break down the silos: Cross-functional communication and collaboration are necessary for organizational success, and IT is in a perfect position to lead this.

These tenets are only a framework, a new perspective for viewing the work we engage in. They overlap into each other the same way human relationships intertwine. And understanding the way technology, the business and the people who work there have interdependencies is a big part of what AlwaysOn is all about. AlwaysOn is not a focus on 7×24 uptime; it is about understanding the very unique ways in which technology must fuse with the business and the end users in order to help us all reach our goals.

AlwaysOn means something different to each business, as each business is unique. Nevertheless, the fundamental concepts at work are similar, no matter how they manifest. Referencing the AlwaysOn philosophy is an outstanding way to approach creating visionary IT services, because it prompts us to step back and look at our goals within the context of the greater business. In doing so, we increase our strategic relevance at the highest levels of leadership.

We will examine each of these tenets in more detail in the next five installments of this series. In doing so, we will demonstrate the ways in which IT can re-integrate with the business and the end-users. Ultimately, the reader will learn how any IT department can transform from that gated community into a shining city on a hill, leading into the future by setting an example for others to follow.

Excerpted from Always On, a forthcoming book by Tim Hebert, Robert Johnson, Chris Poe and Dave Ramsden of Atrion Networking Corporation.