The three golden rules for business-driven IT

R&D, relationship management, quality assurance and marketing, amongst other business areas, are not only underpinned by IT, but looking to technology to improve how they operate. Any IT professional wanting to progress must now complement technical skills with a range of business and soft skills.

IT underpins interactions within a business, as well between the business and the outside world. To ensure we make the most of this technology, we need an understanding of how it fits into the context of what your business is trying to achieve.

Traditionally, the business vision is about making a profit but increasingly includes aspects of sustainability and social responsibility. Delivering on this involves winning and retaining customers, staff retention, working with suppliers, and managing cash-flow while also having a detailed picture of operational factors such as the carbon footprint of the business. The strategy may include targeting new areas the company wants to move into, undertaking R&D, and improving efficiency.

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Technology can drive all of these areas, but only if the staff implementing these solutions understand the wider context of business.

Understand the limits

IT professionals must understand not just the opportunities, but the limitations of the business environment. Many industries are subject to strict regulation, and even when they are not, there are often professional codes of conduct or standards they must meet to satisfy customers or investors.

Adding more complexity are unwritten rules of power and politics, both within and between organisations. If your tech idea doesn’t capture the imagination of the budget holder, or puts off customers, it could mean problems for you and the organisation.

IT professionals must take time to understand how such rules affect their industry and their customers. They must ensure business-enhancing technology is deployed in a way that balances business progress with keeping to the rules – written and unwritten.

Understand how people use technology

As well as relating to the business, a good holistic understanding of how people work with systems will become increasingly important. In designing and deploying technology, they will need to understand how people use technology and make decisions.

For effective cyber security, for example, you will need to understand attackers’ motivations and employee weaknesses. If you can pre-empt methods of attack, you can protect against them. If you can predict situations where employees might click dodgy links or use easy to crack passwords, you can find ways to stop them doing so.

You also need to model how people will respond to change. If you lock down a system to make it more secure, will this simply incentivise employees to circumvent it, putting them at greater risk that a less secure, simpler system would? While the IT operations team might be more than happy with arduous security precautions, senior executives and other staff members may not. Where is the line between usability and security in your organisation?

There is no right answer. Solutions will vary between organisations, countries, and projects and over time. But a good grasp of these issues allows you to model likely outcomes in your environment, and plan for them.

Build a team of business visionaries, not just IT staff

Those looking at how technology can advance their business should start with a good understanding of the company’s objectives. They should work with senior people to identify how IT could be used to advance the business. They may also want to consider pushing for other IT specialists to have a voice at board level: McKinsey recently advocated the idea of a Chief of Software Development.

> See also: The key to being a digital business is seeing the ‘big picture’

Once a technology strategy is agreed, they must either bring in the right skills to fill the gap, or ideally train existing employees who have experience of the business. When developing professionals to deliver visionary business changes, IT training should be put in a real world context, with students learning by crafting actual fit-for-purpose IT systems that are aligned to the business strategies of the organisation where they work.

Core technical skills will always be important in the IT team, but an understanding of business together with the ability to evaluate new situations and work collaboratively to develop new solutions, is becoming increasingly important. This is crucial, as the IT department becomes a driver and not just an enabler of the business.

Sourced from Dr Arosha K. Bandara, senior lecturer in Computing, The Open University

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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