Expert Insights

Should IT be leading this?

In some organisations IT projects have a habit of going over schedule, over budget and falling short of what the organisation actually needs. That, says business transformation expert Anthony Ward, is because they’re more than IT projects – they’re often major change programmes. And if that’s the case, should IT really be leading them? 

There’s no doubting the importance of technology to the day-to-day running of a business and its ability to unlock strategic growth. It’s so important says Anthony, that its implementation shouldn’t be left to your IT department. They should be supporting the business not leading the strategy delivery.

That might sound counterintuitive or even controversial – after all IT are the tech experts. Sadly time and again tech projects run into huge problems, he argues, because they’re solely being led by IT. Anthony should know. He’s spent more than two decades as an interim executive, helping businesses understand, plan for and implement major technology-driven transformation programmes. 

“A manufacturing company was going through a merger and it wanted to explore how the two entities could start bringing data into one place,” he explains. “The business saw it as an IT project, so the IT director took charge, looking at systems, devices, infrastructure, cybersecurity – all very important stuff.   

“At the first review board he presented an update and the marketing director asked: ‘But how does this help me identify new customers?’. The IT director hadn’t considered how the business would use the data to increase sales and profit margins. That’s when the MD brought me in, because he recognised that the IT director thought he was working on an IT project when actually the MD saw it as a business transformation programme”

So when it comes to technology-based programmes, what should companies do? 

1. Identify what you’ve actually got.

Not all technology projects are transformation programmes. “New laptops, a server update, upgraded security – anything behind the scenes that doesn’t have significant impact on processes, operations or the way people engage with the business or customers, is generally best led by an IT project manager” , says Anthony.

2. Ask the difficult questions. 

Typically, an idea for introducing a new system such as a CRM or ERP comes from the IT team, so it’s then seen as an IT project and it becomes IT led. Anthony says that before this happens, business leaders need to be more inquisitive and get a full understanding of what the tech enables their company to do for the benefit of its customers. 

How does it solve your operational challenges? How will it help you identify new customers? How will it help you strategically deploy sales teams? Are there alternatives to what your IT department is proposing? You might not understand technology or the jargon that goes with it, but you do understand your business. 

3. Don’t rush in.

“A lot of companies don’t want to waste time, so they dive in,” he says. “But because they’ve not fully understood the implications, it ends up being a much bigger, more expensive project – and that’s when you run into problems. 

Spend as much time as you can mapping out all the implications for your business at every level, before you press go as preparation is just as important as implementation.”

4. Take ownership.

So if IT isn’t running the programme, who is? “Ultimate ownership should sit with the MD / CEO and the day-to-day running needs to be led by a programme manager  or small cross-functional team (including IT), who can take responsibility for the various elements of the programme. It’s important to remember that implementing a transformation programme is a lot of work over many months, so has the team got capacity? This is often where an outside expert can help.”  

5. Don’t overlook cultural impact. 

Many senior leaders focus on the technological and business benefits, without considering the impact on employees. “Most transformation programmes are conceived from the inside out, but I always put myself in the shoes of the employees,” says Anthony. “Even if a new system eventually makes employees’ jobs easier, there’s a huge cultural change there that needs to be carefully managed through constant communication and education. Don’t underestimate the size of that task.”

In addition, getting it wrong can negatively impact employees confidence of future IT enabled transformation for many years to come

6. Introduce programme gateways. 

Transformation programmes are typically long and complex, involving many moving parts and multiple stakeholders. Constant monitoring at board level is critical to ensuring everyone is delivering what needs to be delivered, and any issues or changes can be flagged early.

As companies look to IT to deliver ever more productivity and efficiency improvements leaders will need to make sure they’re not underestimating the overall scope and scale of the work they are embarking on

Anthony Ward is a transformation expert who spent 10 years in the tech industry before moving into interim management. For the past two decades he’s helped a wide range of companies in multiple sectors successfully implement technology-driven transformation programmes.      

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