Are you a customer or partner of IT?

If you answered “customer,” guess again. IT only has one customer — and that is the customer who buys the company’s products and services. Serving this customer requires an effective IT-business partnership.

As a wise old client of mine articulately states, “IT should be of service, but not subservient.”

Of course, it’s much more enjoyable (and simpler) to be a customer than a partner. The thought of having to understand the long-term interests, workload, and challenges of my financial planner, gardener or babysitter is depressing. Why should I? The service is well defined and pretty commoditized. If my needs are not met, it’s easy to pick up the phone and move on. Although there are components of IT that are of a commodity nature (e.g., computer and network services), how a business applies technology to support their business processes and improve the performance of their people is not.

Partners take care of each other. Partners are committed to finding win-win solutions and making it work for the long term. They make sure that their plans, priorities, authorities, processes, and people dovetail. When problems arise, they fight the temptation to place blame and instead examine the context and system that allow great people to stumble and fall.

The bonus for strengthening the IT-business partnership is on line leaders. IT has practically tied their organizations into pretzels trying to crack the alignment code by trying to:

* Link IT and business strategies
* Shift authority for key IT decisions to business leaders (e.g., funding, priorities, functionality, service levels)
* Define IT services and processes to clarify respective roles and responsibilities and help ensure consistent, predictable delivery
* Decentralize application services to mirror the structure of the business
* Hire, develop, and reward business and relationship management skills (vs. technical skills)

In spite of their efforts over a long period of time, IT hasn’t figured out how to insert themselves in a real way in your real world. Every CIO and IT leader worth their weight understands that they should spend at least ½ of their time outside of the four walls of IT working with their business partners on planning, executing, and trouble-shooting. When challenged to do so, they sheepishly admit that they don’t know what to say and do. I have had many a CIO ask me, “What do I say?” They shy away from spearheading enterprise IT strategy, joint IT-business leadership development forums, IT-business job rotation, and believe it or not, co-location. To many, these efforts make them feel like they are inviting themselves to a party where they aren’t really welcome.

As a result, IT feels like a provider rather than a partner. They are dying for a “seat at the table” in decision-making so that they can advise you as to how to best achieve your goals and support enterprise interests, leverage current capabilities, and exploit new technologies.

IT has done pretty much everything they know how to do. Unless business leaders commit to forging a better partnership with IT, whatever IT is today, it will still be tomorrow.

As daunting as this may sound, the truth is that business leaders have always wanted more control over IT, as evidenced by their willingness to create “shadow” IT organizations, select technologies without involving IT, and contract directly with vendors.

IT-smart business leaders make sure that their organizations work seamlessly with IT. They invest in building strong relationships and teamword with IT because they understand that that IT is an organizational asset, not simply an organization structure, and that exploitation of this asset requires effective IT-business collaboration across, up and down the organization.