What IT Leaders Can Learn from “World Class IT”

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June 19, 2017

What IT Leaders Can Learn from “World Class IT”

By Saeed Elnaj

Vice President, Global ICT, Project Concern International Project Concern International

Peter High, president of Metis Strategy and author of the book “World Class IT,” will be speaking at InsideNGO’s Annual Conference on Thursday, July 20. In his session, “Technovation: How IT Can Drive Organizational Innovation,” High will address how to align business goals and technology for greater synergy and impact, the role of the IT leader, and how to harness the power of the IT team as a platform for innovation. In this blog, Saeed Elnaj, vice president of Global ICT at Project Concern International, reviews “World Class IT.”

It is rare that strategic IT advice comes in a recipe wrapped with a framework and a methodology, but this is exactly what Peter High has done in his well-written and insightful book World Class IT. In this seminal and timeless book, High offers a framework with five principles and a detailed methodology that is easy to follow and to execute. Each of the principles is covered in its own chapter with a set of performance indicators, step-by-step processes, and flowcharts that end up molding these five principles into a well-developed methodology. This makes the book unique, valuable, and a must-read reference for IT leaders, managers, and practitioners.

The five principles are well articulated and presented in such a simple way that they seem familiar and obvious. High’s framework is the IT equivalent of Michael Porter’s revolutionary and well-known five competitive forces framework. In my opinion, understanding both of these frameworks is essential to any IT leader to practice excellence and produce tangible business results from IT investments.

High’s five principles work together and reinforce each other, creating a cohesive approach to generating the best value from IT. The five principles are depicted in the diagram below:

Principle 1: Recruit, train, and retrain World Class IT employees. Per High, the right employees are those who understand how the business operates and makes money, and they are the foundation for IT and a successful company. Employees must understand specific technical areas, as well as the rest of the business and its customers, and how IT’s technical expertise should be applied to help each. In addition to describing this principle in detail, High offers 10 subprinciples, each of which might seem intuitive on its own, but when combined provide an IT leader with tools to successfully manage this critical enterprise resource. Included with this principle is a set of indicators that help IT leaders track the performance of human resources within IT.

Principle 2: Build and maintain a robust IT infrastructure. This principle comes with seven subprinciples and, while it might seem dated in today’s cloud and hybrid infrastructure era, in reality it is as relevant as ever. Moving infrastructure to the cloud changes the role of the IT department but does not change its responsibilities nor does it diminish the importance of the subprinciples proposed by High. IT leaders no longer need to fully manage the hardware or software infrastructures, but they are still responsible for ensuring that up-time and security meet the business needs and requirements. One of the subprinciples is about interdependency between the various systems that IT supports. With some of the IT systems being in the cloud, this subprinciple takes on a different but no less important dimension.

Principle 3: Manage project and portfolio effectively. This is one of the great chapters and topics that is well covered in the book, with eight subprinciples, step-by-step approaches, flowchart diagrams, and a rich set of suggested performance indicators. The outcome is a concise and practical methodology that allows IT leaders to manage portfolios effectively, get the best value for IT investments, and foster innovative ideas. I found that the prioritization subprinciple provides clear, step-by-step guidance on how to select the best IT investments. High then infuses the discussion with real-life examples of Fortune 500 CIOs who successfully applied this principle and its subprinciples.

Principle 4: Ensure partnerships within the IT department and with the business. This principle comes with a set of five subprinciples, three of which stand out: align IT with the business strategy, innovate, and create an IT strategy. On innovation, High recommends that IT leaders develop new ideas, try them quickly and cheaply, and be willing to quickly cancel projects if they do not produce the anticipated value. He also advises IT leaders to encourage and improve innovation through ambidextrous organizational design that enables the pursuit, exploitation, and exploration of new ideas.

Principle 5: Develop a collaborative relationship with the external partners. In this chapter, High explores the pros and cons of outsourcing certain IT functions and makes recommendations on which functions not to outsource. He recommends that enterprise architecture, project, portfolio, release, and vendor managements all be run directly by the IT department. Under this principle he offers three subprinciples: to segment vendors, procure vendors, and manage vendors. Again, the value of these subprinciples is in the details of how to conduct each of them and what it takes to do them right. One very important recommendation for larger organizations with many vendors, is to create a Vendor Management Office (VMO) that manages the Service Level Agreements (SLAs), deliverables, and timelines from each vendor and that conducts performance comparisons between these vendors creating “positive peer pressure” among vendors. 

High notes that out of the five principles only one is truly IT centric: principle two, infrastructure. The other four have business implications and can be borrowed by the business. Given that infrastructure is changing and moving to the cloud, less IT-specialized technical expertise is required and more management and coordination skills are needed. These technology trends tilt IT even more towards a business-savvy department requiring a world-class IT framework to excel. As Aristotle said, excellence is not an act but a habit. A methodology like that found in World Class IT can make the delivery of IT services, products, and projects a habit. And the habit of excellence is well presented in World Class IT.

Image: Five principles for sustainable IT excellence. Courtesy of Peter High.

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