A question of mindset: Why business leaders must engage with technology, even if they don’t understand it

Contemporary business thinking argues that IT is now so fundamental to commercial success that it should govern how companies are run, how they prioritize investment, even how they describe themselves.

Take Uber, for instance, which for many isn’t a disruptive transportation or delivery business, it’s a tech company. Similarly, Amazon isn’t primarily a retailer, it’s a technology company – the list goes on. Everything from banks and food companies to manufacturers and utilities now position themselves as completely tech-led. It drives their innovation, product and service development, customer experience, sales and even organizational culture. Success, we are told – and even business survival – depends on adopting the concept and practice of digital transformation.

For many SMEs and plenty of enterprise organizations, however, this remains a step too far. While they recognize the importance of technology in a modern, competitive business environment, they have neither the time, resources or experience to go ‘all in’ on the changes required to match the ambitions of the digital transformation leaders.

But what should be of most concern to these businesses, and particularly their leaders – is that far from embracing transformation, they still view IT as a siloed business function and a cost center, as opposed to a value center. Leaders employ experts to define what technology solutions their business needs, to implement it and then keep it working – but they don’t engage any further.

This is a mistake that costs thousands of businesses time, money and reduces their ability to respond to changing markets or exploit competitive advantage. The solution lies in a leadership mindset where senior engagement in technology projects – or the absence of it – has a fundamental impact on the ability of tech teams to deliver, and of the wider business to benefit from their efforts. This generally takes one of two forms:

Mindset 1: Leaders who view IT as a specialist problem and don’t engage beyond signing off investment

Businesses hire specialists and expertise for very obvious reasons – we all want bright people as colleagues and employees. This is apparent across the IT function, whose role has become so important that in many enterprises, technology leadership is now an executive position.

But this also creates a mindset where leaders automatically divest responsibility to IT teams for addressing business issues. Typically, business leaders will identify a risk or opportunity where technology holds the solution. They give their IT teams the responsibility, budget and timescales, and at that point, most then disengage from the process and wait for results.

IT teams then take their work back to the leaders who identify weaknesses in the approach and ask for improvements. Thus begins an inefficient and frustrating process that often gets bogged down in technology priorities, when it should be solving business problems or embracing opportunities.

This scenario is extremely common among executives running every non-IT function – they don’t understand IT in detail, so disengage from how it is applied to their business. It is also why so many IT initiatives fail to deliver on their core objectives.

Mindset 2: Leaders view IT as an enabler and invest time to ensure solutions solve business problems

In complete contrast, active engagement from senior stakeholders in any IT project can be transformational. IT teams and suppliers who are offered the time and direct involvement of leaders are far more effective in focusing on addressing business needs.

In this approach, engaged leaders help drive problem solving, priorities and processes. They cut through the noise to identify precise, focused requirements – technology is then applied to these challenges.

Technology issues still remain under the control of their IT experts, but the business problems or opportunities remain as the focal point of every IT project. Technology choices are made in support of strategic objectives, and should adapt to fit the needs of existing, proven processes – unless there is a compelling need, technology should not lead, it should enable.

As a result, projects are much more likely to deliver solutions that help businesses move forward, return on investment is easier to assess and the agility that sits at the heart of so many modern organizations is evident in projects delivered on time and within budget.

Helping IT deliver – how to become an engaged leader

Technology strategy and success isn’t about the solutions and services business buy, it should be measured by business outcome. Engaged leaders – even those who have limited IT experience or have little interest in the detail – recognize this and offer their knowledge and experience to the process of implementing technology. In doing so, they address a number of important perspectives:

– Embrace the possibilities offered by an engaged mindset. Recognizing the importance of technology as one of the most powerful business enablers, not just as a cost center, is key to effective, all-round business leadership. This does not require a deep understanding of IT. 

– Be yourself and contribute your own, focused expertise. Businesses that use technology most successfully apply focused expertise at the most appropriate parts of the process. Non-IT leaders should not feel under pressure to significantly improve their technology knowledge. Instead, they should offer their own skillset to support those bringing solutions together. Equally, do not expect IT specialists to apply their focused knowledge to solving problems that aren’t related to their role.

– Allocate the time of all senior stakeholders and subject matter experts to guide the development of IT solutions. If, for instance, the IT team is designing a solution to improve financial efficiency or reporting, make sure senior finance leaders engage with the process as a priority. This is a commitment that many non-IT leaders find extremely challenging, but is central to ensuring technology projects remain focused.

Remember, a business leader with little or no IT knowledge who engages with and supports the development of key technology projects will always deliver more value than one who doesn’t. In doing so, they demonstrate the value of a mindset that can bring expertise together at the right time to deliver on a wider objective.

Chris Pont, CEO, IJYI

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