If asked to define IT's relationship with the broader business, many folks would probably say IT "serves" the business. The popular ITIL framework espouses the idea of IT creating a catalog from which business users can order desired IT services.
Yet despite the fact that this model is often touted as a best practice, there's a growing sense that positioning itself as an internal service provider is the wrong path for IT to take. Earlier this month I shared Outside the Box blogger Todd Biske's contention that IT must transform itself from a service provider to a trusted adviser. Yes, IT services are indispensable. However, in today's environment they can often be provided more quickly and cost-effectively by outside parties.
An internal IT department is needed only if it can function as an adviser, offering advice and solutions perfectly tailored to companies' needs. These solutions might not always be the least expensive options. An adviser can help companies weigh short-term cost savings against long-term value. Advisers can also help companies better define their own needs. I liked Biske's analogy of a broker, who carries out requests to buy stocks at a given price, vs. a financial adviser who helps people figure out which investments will provide desired outcomes over the long haul.
IT Catalysts President Bob Lewis, writing for InfoWorld, makes a similar point. If IT departments think of business users as customers, their principal product will be software that meets stated business requirements -- but may not help solve business problems or achieve business goals. Lewis quotes several folks in his article, including CIO Bassam Fawaz, who says IT should be like an engineer designing a car. An engineer won't put a horn on the backseat if a customer asks for it. Instead, he or she will explain why the horn isn't a good idea and offer a better solution.
Another pitfall for IT departments using a centralized service provider model, writes Lewis, is the rest of the company may view IT as just another vendor, with all of the animosity, distrust and other vendor/client baggage. That's exactly what happens, writes Forrester Research's Sharyn Leaver on CIO.com. It leads to an us vs. them mentality and fosters a culture of unhappiness and unmet expectations.
What do Lewis and Leaver suggest as alternatives to this centralized service provider model? Leaver advises companies to break up at least some IT resources and "localize" them by placing them directly into business units to perform dedicated tasks. She also recommends getting IT and business staff together for periodic lunch-and-learn sessions about interesting new technologies.
IT must integrate itself into the broader enterprise and adopt a strong governance model that emphasizes a shared vision of success rather than a specific set of IT services, writes Lewis. IT's role needs to change from delivering software and training people to use it to leading business change projects that involve introducing new technical capabilities and tweaking business processes to capitalize on them.