Actually, 'complex' barely begins to describe corporate IT - a department seen both as magical and frustrating, as both essential and dispensable and as both economical and costly all at the same time.
Woe betide the hapless Chief Information Officer or IT Manager. The typical C-level executive can be understood at a glance - the CFO handles cash flow and statutory compliance, the Engineering COO converts raw materials and labour into tangible, finished products, the CMO fashions glitzy brochures and ad campaigns. Yet, for many, the CIO and his or her department are misunderstood.
IT, as the very name indicates, is all about information and about technology. It's a very ethereal combination.
The reasons for this can be explained by way of two questions.
First, what does IT do? An organisation can easily construct task lists for financial staff. Accounts Receivable must generate invoices, chase delinquent debts and perform cash receipting on a regular basis. Accounts Payable must ensure purchase orders are appropriately signed, that invoices are authorised and that debts are paid in a prioritised manner. You can make regular timetables and task lists for finance.
By contrast, IT is generally about ambiguity and exceptions. The IT team will be automating repeatable and routine tasks, and will be taking phone calls, e-mails and help desk requests relating to faults, problems and general user uncertainty.
You know what I am going to ask: how do you measure IT? Everything going swimmingly? What KPIs and metrics can you apply to your company's technology?
The problem for many traditional managers is they do not understand IT. They don't know what IT does and they do not know how to measure it. Actually, you can measure IT and that's a topic for a future day.
Nevertheless, the end result is that without a visionary leader IT becomes viewed as a commodity. Just like your company issues a fuel card or a uniform or a door key to new starters, so too they are issued a desktop or laptop computer and a mobile phone. IT is seen as simply 'there to keep the lights on', so to speak.
If that is all your IT department is good for then just outsource it. A purely support-driven role offers no ultimate value to the organisation.
This myopic view of IT leads to complaints that IT is expensive, and even the ignorant claim that IT deserves no respect because, unlike front-line sales, it is a cost centre, not a profit centre. Tell me, how much revenue did your payroll division generate last quarter?
A good IT Manager, a good CIO, will not stand for such status quo and will not tolerate running a team which is perceived by the business, and which perceives itself, as merely a reactive support centre.
The IT leader, if they are worth their salt, must develop their own brand. They must fight - via demonstrated results and coherent argument - that IT is an essential part of the company's strategy.
Enterprise IT has the potential to leverage technology for the greater benefit of the organisation: to streamline processes, to reduce costs, to increase revenue, to work smarter and more efficiently and, importantly, to become a competitive advantage.
IT leader: are you contributing to the business? You must. It's very easy to argue that the executive management does not understand IT; I've been in that same boat. However, you have the power within you to change that view. The solution is how you talk, act and perform.
Think about the future. Ask to be involved in new initiatives. Offer solutions to problems the company has not yet asked.
You won't achieve the last without understanding what the business does. This is where so many IT people fail - they just want to be left alone to run the server without caring if they are working inside a manufacturing plant, an insurance company, a recruitment firm or whatever else it may be.
Yet, you cannot and must not run IT in a vacuum. If you do not know what the business does, and how what you do can impact it, then you may as well be outsourced because a contractor similarly has no care.
Get involved. Ask questions. Learn what your co-workers actually do and are trying to achieve. Only then can you begin to say, 'Hey, if I did this, then you could save time and money.'
Only then will you be on your way to being a strategic department. It's up to you.