Why Business-Centered Technology is an Imperative for CIOs

By Damani Short

An interview with Damani Short, founder and CEO of Lexico

The COVID-19 crisis has sparked swift and decisive action from IT leaders, changing how IT and business partners expect to collaborate going forward. However, this change has raised a red flag with some technology leaders anticipating less alignment between IT and its business partners, which is essential to delivering business-centered technology solutions. While the pandemic has accelerated the emergence of the virtual workforce and changed our workplaces overnight, IT leaders need to maintain and strengthen their critical relationships with business partners in finance, marketing and operations more than ever. This collaboration and alignment are essential for IT leaders to drive value for the organization and serve as catalysts for further efforts that will help their company navigate what’s next in this brave new world.

While COVID-19 has driven new demands on IT, the importance of business-centered technology is higher than ever before. Damani Short, CEO and Co-Founder of Lexico, a transformation services company based in Milwaukee, Wisc., founded Lexico after recognizing a gap in technology and broader transformation planning. A core tenet in Lexico’s practice is business-centered technology, an approach to embedding technology into the core of a company’s strategy, priorities, governance and operations. We spoke with Damani about the changing dynamics between IT and business partners and why this troubling trend needs to be reversed.

Damani, you have vast experience in technology leadership for some of the world’s most iconic brands – GE, Newell, Rubbermaid, Johnson Controls, Shutterfly and the United States Olympic Committee. How has your experience informed your approach to aligning technology and broader transformation planning?

Because I have worked in a cross-section of industries and business models, I’ve had 5 to 6 opportunities to get technology to a point where it’s driving broader business objectives more effectively. Business-centered technology is where the business is at the center, with its broader objectives and intended outcomes fueling technology strategy. Whether it’s a for-profit or not-for-profit business doesn’t matter. The point is, whatever the intended objectives of the organization are, what you do with technology, people and tools all starts and ends with the business. 

For example, for the [United States] Olympic Committee, one of our five strategic objectives was related to medal count. This translates into athletes’ performance, so you need to see how to use technology to enable athletic performance and achievement. So, a portion of our spend and resources would go toward technologies that would better empower our athletes. We had three Olympic training centers, and we’re sending twenty thousand people a year through these training centers. How do you then utilize technology in those training centers to help optimize athletic training and performance? What do you do, and what don’t you do? 

In a for-profit scenario, if a company has margin performance objectives, they want to continue down a path of improving their margin performance in the business. We may look at a series of projects and ask, “How is this project/investment going to improve margin performance relative to other investments?” Your technology spend is a portfolio of investments – it’s in people (including partners), it’s in tools and it’s in the technology itself. How do you maximize that portfolio and advance the KPIs of the business?

Why is having a “business-centered technology” approach important to an organization?

If a company is going to spend 2-4 percent of its revenue on technology, the only way you can realize the value of technology investment is to connect and align it to the business and integrate technology into the priorities of the organization. Unfortunately, this is why IT is so often disconnected and not aligned because you have leaders that don’t have this mindset. Instead, they operate in silos, by not including business partners at the table or focus on the technology rather than the broader business needs.

There’s a big relational component [to business-centered technology]. Often, executives struggle with having a strong understanding of technology – how and where it can help a business as well as some fundamental do’s and don’ts. Furthermore, they tend to lack confidence in technology-related conversations and avoid them. This creates extra friction and extra hurdles that the technology function has to overcome. 

As a technology leader, you have to overcome that friction and those hurdles, in part by employing those soft skills and building and strengthening relationships with your business partners. For these relationships to be sustained over time, value has to be delivered. This can be in the form of tangibles (like solving problems and offering assistance, supporting the strategic planning process or allocating resources to a function) and intangibles (like enjoying working together). Especially in the long term, both forms are critical. If you don’t have the relational piece, I think you’re going to struggle.

The IT and business partnership is more important than ever, and it’s harder than ever. You can’t lean on being in the same building right now. It’s all those informal encounters, when people walk by your office, where the relationship building takes place – it’s not in structured meetings. It’s all happening in the back channels where you discuss real opportunities. Now it’s picking up the phone or having a video meeting to amplify the high touch approach with key stakeholders.

What are the characteristics of a business-centered technology approach?

I would say it’s when investments are analyzed in the context of achieving key objectives and KPIs of the business. 

It’s also having people, such as a Business Relationship Manager, in the organization who are in a liaison capacity with each of the business functions. For example, HR has someone from IT who is their go-to person. They’re almost an account executive type of role, someone who is a part of the function’s operating cadence, strategy and planning and speaks the language of the function to communicate its needs to IT (and vice versa). The liaison understands the function and its structure, and they’re actively building and fostering relationships within it. 

It’s looking at all the functions with their own portfolio of needs and wants, and ensuring they all integrate cross-functionally to support the objectives of the organization and the business at large.

Recently, the CIO COVID-19 Impact Study was fielded to get a pulse on what IT leaders really think about the COVID-19 crisis. It revealed that just 23 percent of IT leaders are now focusing on aligning IT to business goals, down 21 percentage points from September. Furthermore, just 18 percent of IT leaders expecting to spend time cultivating IT and business partnerships. 

Through the lens of business-centered technology, what do you think about these survey findings?

Business-centered technology is actually more important than ever. But so many leaders now are dealing with cost reductions and layoffs because of COVID-19. So, when you’re asked in a survey about IT-business alignment under these current circumstances, I think you have to take the study with a grain of salt. 

I do think, though, that CIOs have been overwhelmed with the tactics, trying to enable a virtualization of their workforce, in some cases literally overnight. By means of survival, you put employees first. You may have to cut some meetings out of your schedule that are more optional than the internal needs right in front of you. Everyone’s in reaction mode, rather than being proactive. So naturally, these leaders [in the survey] are going to say, “Well, I had to reprioritize and spend less time aligning IT with the business.” It doesn’t mean that it’s not important in the big picture. 

What do you foresee the potential shift in focus from IT-business alignment having on the role of IT leadership? 

Hopefully it doesn’t, for the sake of the trade. It would make the CIOs and their front-line reports less effective, less impactful and consumers would be upset that what they’re getting doesn’t meet their needs.

And frankly, if you don’t have a business-centered technology approach, you don’t survive. It’s the only way to thrive. The shelf life of a CIO is eighteen months already, which is half that of every other C-Suite executive. There are studies that say up to seventy percent of them flame out before that. It gets worse if you don’t develop this mindset of collaboration and alignment and build those relational skills. 

What can IT leaders expect from their partners in finance, operations, marketing, etc. if this trend continues?

I’m not sure that there’s necessarily a discipline that is more interested in business-centered technology versus another. It is nuanced to each leader and where they are in their own functional transformation journey. Technology is almost impossible to avoid in every function and it may look different in each one. It may look and sound sexy in a sales or marketing capacity, whereas in HR, you have performance management and learning systems that may not sound as sexy. So it’s difficult to compare among the functions.

What IT needs is a thought partner. It’s not an old school controller with good intentions but has built-in process barriers to progress. It’s not a peer who does what he or she needs to get things done, making deals with third party providers without including IT, which then puts you in reactive mode. 

Instead, it’s an executive that’s new to the company, wants to make their mark with visible impact and sees value in collaborating with IT. Or it’s the executive who has been in the role for a while and has already gone through their own transformation so they get it. Both can be good thought partners to IT.

Having that thought partnership is important for IT-business alignment because there are more technology-enabled products and services that are managed outside of the IT team, which requires upfront involvement from the CIO to ensure there’s smart integration with existing systems, requirements are being met and cost overruns are avoided. I also think companies need to take a data-designed approach from day one, so you’re designing your products and services with that data in mind, which is part of the business-centered technology approach as well.

How can IT leaders course-correct and embrace business-centered technology?

If you’re not a believer in it, or maybe you don’t fully understand or know what to do or why to do or how to do, there are two things leaders can do that are really simple.

One, spend more time with stakeholders and have conversations with business partners. Ask questions – what are their KPIs, what are their pain points and challenges, what are their objectives with people and the way you work? What type of culture are you trying to build? This shows interest, you learn facets of their operation, and it’s the basis for building and strengthening relationships. 

Two, bring in an advisor to coach you as a leader, to help you move to this business-centered technology approach. Sports teach us a lot about life and there’s not a team or an athlete that’s high performing that doesn’t have a coach or trainer. How do you get a leader to move to a business-centered technology approach without having done that for the last twenty years? You need a coach to get you there, to help you evolve to a business-centered technology mindset.