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Class bridges IT, business gulf

The Society for Information Management (SIM) is taking IT pros to school in the ways of business. Shoring up these softer skills could help companies align their business and IT strategies.

A course for IT professionals just might be the answer to the long-pondered question of how to better align an enterprise's IT and business strategies.

The Regional Leadership Forum (RLF), a year-long course offered by the St. Louis-based Society for Information Management (SIM), aims to help IT pros bone up on softer business skills such as leadership, communication and negotiation.

Robert A. Rouse, an RLF facilitator and the vice president of leadership development for SIM, said that most students are well into their IT careers when they take the course. The curriculum is largely based on what they want to learn. He said that over the past 12 years, more and more students have expressed a desire to improve their business skills. The students have basically driven the course to its present state.

SIM reports that since its founding in 1992, more than 1,200 graduates have risen through the ranks at top corporations, including McDonalds, PepsiCo, Sharp Electronics and Paramount Pictures.

RLF students pay $6,000 in tuition and meet about once every six weeks for a year, Rouse said. Students learn through a series of guest speaker and student presentations and classroom discussions about philosophy and how to achieve success. Students are also asked to read 40 textbooks, including "The Art of War," "The Pearl," and "The Celestine Prophecy."

"I think of this course as a full contact experience," Rouse said. "You learn from your peers, and you have a chance to change."

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The priority that persists

Addressing a need

For more than 15 years, high level company executives responding to various surveys have said that they'd like to see better alignment between business and IT. Many feel that the focus in the IT department has long been on the latest and greatest technologies rather than on what's best for the overriding vision or goals of the company.

Focusing on the hottest new technologies might have been fine during the economic boom of the late 1990s when businesses couldn't spend money fast enough. But now, thanks to the recession and the subsequent recovery, CIOs say that a new, pennywise attitude has taken hold. More than ever, they say, IT investments are approved or denied based solely on how the proposed technology adds value to the business.

Executives admit that there's been little progress over the last 15 years in the area of aligning business with IT strategies, despite the overwhelming desire. A recent survey of 200 IT executives by Deloitte Consulting and IDG Research Services found that only 10% of IT executives rated themselves as "extremely successful" in alignment efforts.

Rouse said that a good place for enterprises to begin the process of alignment is to take a look at the company's budget. About 2-3% of a firm's annual budget is usually spent on IT, and about 25% percent on business processes like manufacturing, logistics, procurement and general administration, he said. Students in the RLF frequently discuss how to focus their spending power on lowering the costs associated with that 25%.

"Look at the cost of business processes, and figure out how to lower them with technology," Rouse said. "And now, you're suddenly starting to attack a much bigger part of the overhead than just IT."

Other RLF presentation and discussion topics cover corporate governance, decision making, and building a business case for technology.

Culture clash

Tony Iams, a senior analyst with D.H. Brown Associates in Port Chester, N.Y., explained that the culture of the IT department is to focus on technology. This focus is driven partially by vendors, who rely on their installed bases to get excited about the new technologies as they are released.

"One of the problems has been an excessive focus on the technology," Iams said. People tend to get caught up in the hype and how cool things are."

On the other hand, Iams said, the culture of high-level business executives is to focus on cost and return on investment. While potential investments might make the lives of some company employees easier, executives will be quick to dismiss them if there is no demonstrable value-add to the core business.

Iams said that a good way to bring these cultures together is to increase communication. Once that is done, it will be easier to decide upon a common method for attacking business problems.

"Start with the business problem, and from there figure out what the technology should be," Iams said.

"It's really a question of bridging two groups that have very different cultures," he added. "It's never easy to do."

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