It's fairly common knowledge that the best way to learn something -- really learn it -- is to immerse yourself in it as completely as possible. A friend of mine went to France for a semester in college and came home speaking French like a native.
British retailer Marks & Spencer is now using the same idea to boost the business savvy of its IT staff, reports Computing. The company is restructuring its IT department so that staffers are posted in different business units, such as buying, merchandising and back office, rather than working from a central IT division.
The idea, the company's IT director tells Computing, is to improve communication between IT and business folks "so the IT department will evolve into a service function, not a separate entity."
Marks & Spencer is also making a commitment to hire more IT staff. A key caveat: They must be versed in the broader business as well as technology. Says the director:
"As an employer, you no longer need people to build systems, you need people who know how to apply (technology) packages to the company and get the best out of them."
Other companies are adopting similar strategies in an effort to get their IT staffs up to business speed. Several examples are offered in an CIO.com story. For instance, the CIO of insurer USI Holding encourages -- and earmarks funds for -- business analysts to get nontechnical certifications in property and casualty insurance and insurance licenses.
It's important for IT staffers to be able to think in business terms, notes the CIO of Bethesda Lutheran Homes and Services. Rather than worrying about "a system going down," he wants his staff to understand its broader impact on the company's ability to provide medication to patients.
Motorola has created three teams: "plan," a group of business analysts who interact regularly with the business; "build," the application developers; and "run," staffers responsible for maintenance. The company's VP of supply chain IT hires business people, rather than technical types, for the plan team and has both plan and run team members work directly with business units.
The increasing intermingling of IT and business staffs may also lead to a state described by Michael O'Neil in his recent blog, The IT Department: Strategic Function or Corporate Utility? O'Neil writes:
... there is also an argument that in many situations, the IT department contains "doers" rather than "deciders" -- that those who identify the need for new technology-enabled solutions, provide the initial design for these systems, and wield real decision-making power are not inside the IT department at all. In these situations, IT fills a necessary but essentially subordinate role; not responsible for scoping the solution, but merely for ensuring reliable operation of system components. In these cases, IT is a utility, and employees who covet more expansive career paths will need to supplement their technical skills with business expertise, and take jobs outside of the IT department.