Why IT Leaders Must Proactively Understand Business Needs

As an IT leader here at Workday, I count myself lucky to have been exposed to many parts of the business. Through this experience, I’ve learned that the most successful projects depend on IT’s willingness to not just be a good partner, but to always take the first steps to serve and understand your business partners’ needs.    

I lead the Workday on Workday (WoW) team—responsible for the enterprise deployment of the Workday platform within our own company—but I started my professional career as a management consultant and ERP implementer. At Workday, I’ve had many roles as a business owner and end user of our products. A few years ago I would have told you I understood why organizations choose to implement systems, the realities of deployment, and what’s required for them to be successful. Being a system owner, though, has taught me that the only lasting measure of success for any IT project is its ability to enable long-term business success.    

IT has also taught me that thinking of business success as the objective is not just good for the business, it’s good for the success of the IT team. Consider that IT’s role in business application deployments has changed dramatically in the last 15 years. Systems have become much easier to configure, and end users are much more technologically savvy. Most business leaders today are exposed to so much technology that any mystery of what IT does no longer exists.

If IT doesn’t proactively move to understand the businesses’ challenges and deliver, the business will simply work around it. When that happens all sorts of problems can result, including fractured organizational data structures and inefficient IT costs and processes. One of IT’s core value propositions is keeping a business unified in digital process, and avoiding departmental silos.  

Being proactive means approaching a problem or opportunity as a service organization with the same mindset as a good doctor. You’d be shocked if a doctor told you, without first understanding your medical history or the reason you came in, that she was prescribing medication. It’s a different story if a doctor listens closely to your issues and then offers three leading courses of treatment.

There must also be this understanding from the other parts of the business: IT’s biggest “service” isn’t that it provides technology (though of course it does), it’s that it has the insight and expertise across the entire company to be a strong unifying partner, if not the leader, in driving innovation.

Be the Great (Data) Connector

One of IT’s greatest responsibilities is making sure everyone across the whole organization is working from the same data, and we do that by ensuring all data stores connect. When you explain it in those terms—that the business needs the timeliest, most accurate data possible to make decisions—people listen. Add that you are hoping to not just enable transformation, but encourage it, and you’ll have everyone’s undivided attention.

Because of IT’s visibility across the whole organization, we understand some of the interdependencies that might not be obvious—and it’s in these spaces we can often reimagine the processes that can transform the business.

Partnering in the Real World

Let’s bring it back to another real world example. I like to use the analogy of being a good neighbor: Let’s say your neighbor sees you struggling outside with a leaky pipe (you have never had to fix one before, and are stymied). An average neighbor might ask what you’re doing, wish you luck, and be on his way. A great neighbor will not only share his expertise and experience with leaky pipes, but will grab his wrenches, lend a hand, and talk you through it as you go. That’s what our team aims to do: Don’t just observe and advise; be a problem solver.

How do you do this at your company? Here are some immediate, actionable steps: 

  • Seek first to understand a specific business problem. Try to talk to people at all levels of an organization to understand everything from end-user workflow, to support staff needs, to what data could better help decision makers. Put yourself in the seat of the business operators.
  • Once you understand, reiterate your understanding. Different people can have divergent interpretations of the same set of facts.
  • After agreeing on a shared understanding, paint the goals and measures of success in metrics that both IT and the business feel represent a worthy accomplishment. This is often where IT’s big-picture thinking can really pay off—especially when multiple business departments are involved.
  • Build cross-organizational teams to execute on projects—being careful to clearly show the common goals to both teams and realistic resourcing needs. 
  • Execute and measure ongoing results and how they inform your stated goals.
  • Reiterate and refine as needed. 

I’m grateful that I am surrounded by great neighbors here at Workday, and that I get the opportunity to return the favor on a nearly daily basis. I invite you to read more about the latest trends in IT here, a summary of a very interesting webinar I participated in.