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SIMposium 2016: Break free from lights-on IT by empowering the business

In part two of this report from SIMposium 2016, executive coach Susan Cramm offers a step-by-step primer on the IT empowerment model.

Editor's note: In part one of this report from the recent SIMposium 2016conference, "CIO advice at SIMposium 2016: How to raise 'adult' business partners," executive coach Susan Cramm laid out a rationale for boosting IT innovation by training business partners to become more technology proficient. Here, readers will find her prescription for following the IT "empowerment model," including advice on which functions to keep in IT, four key concepts of the model and how to get started.

Most IT departments have far more demands from the business for their services than they can fulfill. Staffing IT teams is an uphill battle -- indeed, commonly referred to by CIOs as the war for IT talent. Meanwhile, the quest for IT innovation gets sidetracked every day by the need to deliver basic IT services reliably and securely.

At the recent SIMposium 2016 conference, executive coach Susan Cramm proposed a path forward for CIOs: To get out from under the burden of lights-on IT, CIOs need to make business employees more technology proficient -- an approach to managing IT that Cramm referred to as the empowerment model. 

The transition to an IT empowerment model won't be easy, she acknowledged to the audience of senior IT leaders. It will require them to look at every service IT provides and ask what they can do to ensure that "IT is done well, but that IT is not doing it all," she said.

What to keep, engendering IT responsibility

The first step toward empowering the business with more IT responsibility is being clear about which functions IT needs to keep in IT, Cramm said. From her experience as a former CIO, CFO and coach to Fortune 500 companies, the functions include:

"These are things we are never going to let go. We have a fiduciary responsibility for them," she said.

Everyone in the company needs to have technology as part of their accountabilities.
Susan Crammexecutive coach, Valuedance

A big challenge facing CIOs in moving to the empowerment model is that their business partners do not feel a permanent sense of responsibility for technology. "They plunk themselves in or out, based on the projects," she said. To make the empowerment model work, the business responsibility for IT will ultimately have to be built into job descriptions.

"Everyone in the company needs to have technology as part of their accountabilities," she said.

Susan CrammSusan Cramm

That won't happen overnight, but it is already in the works at some companies. General Electric Co. CEO Jeff Immelt famously told millennials in an August posting on LinkedIn, that anyone in their twenties who joins GE -- an industrial digital company -- should be prepared to learn how to code. That includes new hires in sales, finance and operations.

Times are changing, and young employees are coming in with new skills, Cramm said. One of the most popular elective courses at Harvard University now is the introduction to computer programming.

"We have an opportunity to lead the transformation and skill up other parts of the business -- or we have the unfortunate label of being an inhibitor to innovation capacity," she said.

IT empowerment model: Four concepts

Cramm laid out four key concepts that underpin the IT empowerment model:

1. From direct to indirect control

This means controlling IT via policies, process and systems, rather than by people. Instead of appointing a project manager to ensure the project is managed correctly, define what project management is, define the skill sets required, form the rules and provide system or application support. Citing her experience as a CFO, Cramm pointed to the finance processes that ensure business people manage their own financial assets, including an annual budget process, a chart of accounts, financial accountabilities at every level of the organization, a rollup structure, ongoing reporting and performance reviews based on the actual results.

2. Coach, don't do  

CIOs will need to convince their IT staff to "put their hands in their pockets" when training business employees to take IT responsibility, rather than just doing it. Finding the resources to do the coaching will be tough. But CIOs have done it before, she said, when they moved to other models of delivering IT, such as embedding IT resources in business units. "You reduced your lights-on costs because you knew how important it was," she said.

3. Platforms, not point solutions

"These are tools to build tools, or tools to do what we formerly had to do," Cramm said. She cited the data visualization and analytics tools deployed at many companies that "in some ways have put us out of that business." The spectrum for IT empowerment will vary company to company. She recalled a recent conversation with a CIO at a professional services company who told Cramm that doing data visualization and analytics is "table stakes for her entire company," because business success is tied to having those skills.

4. From fixed to variable costs

Cloud computing is a vehicle for moving from fixed to variable costs, and it is no longer something leading CIOs just talk about. "They are all in, and they are all in because of time to market and because it has saved money." Another "thrilling" sea change, in her view, is the "return to sanity" on outsourcing. Companies and CIOs understand there are core skills that must be kept in-house. "We have to own our own architectures; it is our core internal experts who allow us to flexibly scale."

Roots and wings

In moving to an empowerment model, CIOs will have to go slow in order to go fast, Cramm said. It will be a long road for CIOs, but begin they must, she told the SIMposium 2016 crowd. "It's not so different from what you do in your own teams," she said.

CIOs already know how to empower leaders in their own ranks, and they know how to develop employees over time by aligning their work with their motivations and long-term goals. 

More about SIMposium 2016

SIMposium is an annual event organized by members of the Society for Information Management, an association for senior IT leaders now in its 47th year. "20/20 Vision" was the theme of this year's three-day conference, held in Uncasville, Conn., at the Mohegan Sun Resort and Casino. Sessions were designed to help senior IT leaders plan for the next four years in areas ranging from risk management to financial planning, with a heavy dose of leadership advice.

As for whom to sign up first, she suggested CIOs go to people waiting for IT services -- those they've had to pass over or have actually hidden from -- as well as to their critics. "Go after the ones who really don't like what you have to offer," she said. 

Also, identify the "innovators within," people who love to think about how to do their jobs differently. Research suggests about 30% of people by nature innovate, she said.

Finally, the shadow IT folks, super users and geeks are chomping at the bit for IT empowerment. "They are naturally attracted to having more freedom."

The idea is to give business people roots and wings, Cramm said. "Help them understand what good looks like in IT" and that will give them -- and IT -- more freedom.

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