We’ve decided we’re going to step out of the shadows of our IT technology comfort zone, into the bright, often harsh light of the political hot zones of our organizations. This is where strategy is made -- and we want a part in it.
Where should we step into the light, and more importantly, with whom?
We need to find the right business people to engage with, and the right places to engage with them. What are the key relationships we need, and for what purpose?
One approach is to think of our organization as a social structure, not an org chart. What are the key stakeholder groups, who are their locomotive members, and where/how do they gather to socialize and refine their strategy? Organizations don’t get things done through their structure charts. Things get done through the web of personal relationships -- between key actors -- with trust as the enabling social collateral. IT needs to be in that web.
Here's a higher-ed example. Universities teach, research, and administer, and each of these core activities has its own stakeholder network and community. These networked communities work up into more formal structures to determine strategy and execute it, but they are the wellspring.
Deputy vice chancellors for research are accountable for their universities' research strategies, but they know they must bring the research community with them to achieve outcomes. For their research strategy to deliver, it must be an evolving reflection of the research communities’ aspirations, commitments, and performance.
These networked stakeholder activity communities typically have a small number of key actors who generate a disproportionate amount of momentum through their personal and/or positional power. These key actors are usually well known and accomplished networkers, bringing their networks as resources for momentum. We are not talking literally about network engineers and their routers -- the network folk we are interested in lead the shaping of strategy in their communities and up into formal governance. They are crucial to enterprise dynamics and exploiting IT in the enterprise.
We believe our role as an IT professional is to inform our organization’s strategy. Therefore, it's also part of our IT professional role to get embedded in the earliest stages of shaping strategy so that it exploits technology well. And we do this by building purposeful relationships with the key organizational network folk who lead that shaping.
In my experience, in universities, about 1 to 2 percent of staff hold about 70 percent to 80 percent of the capacity for shaping strategic change, and for basically seeing that things get done at a strategic level. In one university, it was 40 to 50 key folk out of 4,000 to 5,000 staff, and I have encountered similar ratios elsewhere. This 1 or 2 percent are key influencers and thought leaders who bring the rest with them through their networks, power, and community leadership. For different strategic hot buttons, it will be different assemblies of the 1 to 2 percent who provide the 80/20 lead.
Successful CIOs seem to take on the more challenging relationships with the key network folk, and delegate strategic relationship responsibility to direct reports, where there is a nice convergence and coverage of interests -- a natural fit for purpose and personal chemistry. One or 2 percent of staff is too much for one top IT exec to manage. I see some CIOs try to do top level relationship management as an individual, and face rapid burn out. An IT exec team approach works best, and looks like strategic account management if well organized.
These strategic relationships are not Woodstockian, not built for the group hug or bon homie. Socializing, small talk, empathy, genuine respect for reciprocity, mutual benefit, and deliberate development of mutual trust are key parts of these relationships. But at their center, these relationships need clear, mutual purpose and benefit in order to be sustained.
Regular joint renewal of relationships at a strategic level reminds partners of their mutual obligations. We focus on the next few months' objectives that we each have separately, and make clear the mutual support we commit to provide each other to achieve selected objectives via the relationship. Making, tracking, and keeping these commitments becomes part of our regular relationship, and over time accretes trust.
The commitments and joint objectives become like our joint adopted or foster children, who we share parental responsibility for, and, at least vicariously, an interest in their outcomes. These children always give you something to talk about in your relationship.
IT staff immersion has come up previously as a useful method for engaging with the business. There are a few engagement methods that I have seen work with my clients; different methods for different relationships -- with independents, critical friends, or natural partners -- and for embedding IT in strategy shaping for different layers of the business. More on these methods at another time.
Now that we know who we are partnering with, we can target our efforts and develop a reciprocal approach. If both parties benefit, the partnership will grow.
— Neil Thelander spent more than 30 years as an IT executive in the government, technology, healthcare, and university sectors. He consults with and coaches IT leaders.