For years the IT department fought for the chance to demonstrate the business value of technology innovation. Yet after a flurry of CIO appointments in the late 1990s, housing associations appear to have largely changed their view about technology as a business enabler and could therefore be in danger of considering it as little more than a balance sheet cost.
When planning their strategies, developing products or introducing new services, housing associations inevitably have to use IT. Accountability is crucial, as is delivery that adds business value. It is time for housing associations to consider more carefully how and why they use IT, and what other business benefits IT can bring. If the IT department falls into the trap of failing to deliver business value by persisting with technology-led strategies, it is in danger of squandering its chance of becoming an integral component of business success and being perceived as just a necessary expense.
Senior business managers inevitably look to the IT departments when planning a new strategy or future service. IT is now integrated throughout every aspect of business and increasingly, almost any new project has some technology requirement to enable its successful implementation.
Yet the increasing reliability of technology and its evolution from highly-visible business enabler to background tool means managers forget about its business impact. By failing to involve the IT department in discussions about business change, housing associations are placing themselves in danger of persistently failing to realise key goals, while the IT department is in a state of permanent fire-fighting.
Is the failure to embrace IT at a senior level the result of the increasing pervasiveness of technology? Or have senior managers been burnt too many times by IT departments whose role is sometimes seen to be one of ‘process inhibitor’ rather than business enabler?
Facing the truth
Blaming the slide in profile on technology’s pervasiveness is disingenuous. While IT departments must be accountable for budget spend, they also need to consistently demonstrate business value and proactive support for business growth. This level of visibility is what is required to ensure IT is retained as a key corporate component.
Instead, the majority of senior managers fail to interact successfully with the IT department. How can a managing director have faith in an IT team that insists an investment of several hundred thousand pounds is required to upgrade core systems, when the department is reluctant to showcase the anticipated business benefit? No other department would propose a ‘because we have to’ investment. Yet the IT department is in danger of doing just that.
Failing to push IT to be accountable makes senior management culpable. Housing associations need a tangible link between IT strategy and business strategy in order to maximise the benefits of their projects. Failing to consider the IT implications early enough in a new initiative results in either delays or a complete breakdown. Yet the cost of creating an IT infrastructure that does not reflect business needs is continuous, resulting in a constant undermining of small business benefits. Without an IT strategy that reflects investment in process change, benefits cannot possibly be achieved.
The resultant failure of senior management to engage with IT is creating business problems, adding cost and constraining growth. If an internal IT department cannot prove quantifiable business value, then the housing association is entirely justified in looking elsewhere for that support.
Increasingly, senior managers are approaching external suppliers for straight answers to technology problems or advice on new business initiatives. Operating in a competitive commercial world, external suppliers must be accountable and demonstrate business value daily – a concept that in-house IT departments often still struggle to grasp.
It is critical to ensure the IT strategy is at the heart of any business change. Senior managers need to set aside their prejudices – and poor experience – and actively embrace the IT provider, whether in-house or external. And that IT provider must stop prevaricating, lose the obsession with technology-led investment and deliver an IT strategy that complements business needs.
Joanna Sedley-Burke is business development director at Sovereign Business Integration.