9 tech leaders’ advice on sustaining business alignment (part 1)

Now that Season 1 of the popular podcast Network Disrupted has wrapped, it’s time to parse insights from the show and share them with you.

BlueCat CSO Andrew Wertkin made a podcast highlighting IT leaders driving technological innovation – and it’s awesome.

Whether you finance cars like GM Financial, keep businesses running like Unisys, or provide an essential service to Canadians like Loblaw, technology is central to your service delivery, competitive advantage, and survival.

The first part of this series will focus on how our guests approach creating that critical alignment with the business. As you’re about to see, they’re all very much aligned on the importance of creating opportunities for interaction and perspective-sharing across a variety of different groups. We’ve pulled together their best advice below.

A note before we begin: this series wouldn’t be possible without the openness of our exceptional show guests. If you see them around LinkedIn or Twitter, give them a virtual high five.

Find episodes on: Apple Podcasts | Google Play | Spotify | Overcast | RSS

P.S. Network Disrupted is setting sail for its second season this fall. Know somebody who should be featured? Send your recommendations to andrew@networkdisrupted.com or @netwkdisrupted on Twitter.


How to create and sustain alignment between technology and the business

Lesson 1: Learn to read between the lines

Jon Macy, Director at healthcare IT company Cerner, aptly pointed out a distinction between delivering what your business partners specifically ask for, and what is good for everybody long-term. 

He drew an example, saying, “Don’t get me wrong, as a [broadly] customer I want to be satisfied, but really I want to be satisfied in the context of knowing that I am doing the right thing for my organization and my company… That includes taking input or making corrections to my view within the space.”

He also points out that, “a lot of times we don’t get business requirements. We get… ‘technical [requirements]’ because somebody has interpreted some set of business requirements, already picked product, design, and process, and procedure, and are handing it to us.”

Leadership in technology is as much decoding people and groups as it is understanding actual tech.

Lesson 2: Join the team – literally

Mathew Chase, VP of IT at higher education software provider Ellucian, recommends getting as close as you can to your stakeholders. Literally. 

“We’ve designed our team in such a way that all IT leaders own a business partner inside the organization, and that’s really even just sitting through their weekly standup meetings and their weekly group meetings.” Chase says it allows IT to really understand where technology can play a role, and provide insight and coordination across different teams.

Lesson 3: Go where your end customers are

You’d think by now this doesn’t need repeating. But it does.

David Markwell, SVP of Technology at Canada’s grocery and pharmacy leader, Loblaw, reminds listeners that, “when people talk about ‘scan rate per hour’ as being an important metric at [the Point of Sale], why is that? It’s because if you don’t stick to your scan rate, you’re going to have line-ups, and then people are going to be upset… they will abandon carts and walk out. It’s about understanding that and seeing that happen.” 

“We need to be where the customers are,” he says. “So if people want to learn about stores, they need to be in stores.” That’s what will drive consistent understanding around, for example, why it’s not reasonable to prolong the POS experience for end users. Seeing is an important step to align all teams around what the ultimate goal should be.

Lesson 4: Look up and down[stream]

Similarly, Anshuman Awasthi, Director of Infrastructure and Engineering at a leading retailer whose furniture we all know and love, makes a point to involve areas of the business that are up and downstream of technology decisions he makes. 

As an example, he says, “we involve our support center team, and someone from the store operations… They will provide a completely different view of the situation, that [we’re] just not thinking. So I think it’s important to involve your partners, your business in that, get their opinion, before you sign off on a Proof-of-Concept.”

Lesson 5: Bring the business into your world

Adding to the theme (great minds think alike?), GM Financial’s VP in IT Solutions Tom Sweet involves people from across his organization more deeply in his operation.

He says, “when you look at the traditional QA analyst that I have, some of them come from QA organizations outside of the company. Others came from different business units and they showed aptitude and desire and they were moved into IT as more of a user acceptance testing type of approach.” 

Bringing the business into your fold of day-to-day operations in more involved capacities can also help foster understanding.

Lesson 6: Create shared goals and requirements across the business

“Whenever we do any kind of strategy planning now, we have shared objectives across business units and across business units and technology against the outcome that we’re trying to achieve,” shares Loblaw’s Markwell.

“Twelve years ago when I joined [Loblaw], Supply Chain was incented to ship maximum cube. So they would stuff the 63-foot trailers as full as possible, and the stores were incented on turnaround time… That’s an example of misaligned objectives, versus now it’s store operation merchandising are all incented on shop availability, which is what the customer sees.”

Lesson 7: Plant seeds for trust early and often

Macy has spent years building the sorts of relationships that allow his team to have a pulse on the business’ needs. 

“Whoever you’re serving, you need to have adequate engagement so that they feel comfortable with engaging an idea that may not be fully formed yet with you.”

That engagement can take many forms, with formal programs or more casual run-ins over time. Macy says, “I also have relationships that pretty much developed over my career at Cerner that allows those individuals out in those other areas to pick up the phone literally and call me and say, ‘Hey, we’re thinking about doing X. Can you come over and walk through where we think this might go?’ That’s engagement very early on in the process.” That sort of engagement is a product of longstanding investment in trust.

Lesson 8: Get some outside perspective

Another way to promote alignment is to speak with people outside your organization, who can offer an objective opinion without the filter of your organization’s history and politics. That can be really valuable. In our guest’s case, it also sparked opportunities for partnership with broader government initiatives, not just his own group’s.

Former USDA service delivery chief and current Chief Innovation Officer at NetImpact Strategies, Chad Sheridan, says, “I tended to branch outside of my agency and talk to other feds. Sometimes that’s rare, but I don’t know how not to do that. So I spent a lot of time connecting across federal agencies and working on cross-agency initiatives. I think also there are a lot of similarities, but there are a lot of differences. I think it’s very easy for the government to get single focused on their own programs and missions and not look across the horizontal.”

Lesson 9: Leave pride at the door

“One of the hard things about trust is allowing yourself to be vulnerable,” acknowledges show host Wertkin. 

“The business might have found a better solution than you have today for them and I think if you’re hooked up on ‘not invented here’ or ‘you can’t be right because this is my job,’ if you’re trying to jam them into the tool because you’re actually trying to prove them wrong, then I don’t think you’re going to live in this IT world as a productive strategic participant very long.”

Lesson 10: Remember what really matters

Unisys CTO Vishal Gupta sees this mistake happen a lot, where leaders forget their true purpose with their organization and how it can move the business forward. 

Using AI as an example, he says, “many times people focus so much on getting the data, and cleaning the data, that they don’t put enough focus on what would be the most compelling use cases once they have the data. What are the most important problems? I think it’s a question of nice balance. They need to also know which things are going to truly move the needle, which are the most important questions, and then how do you get the data to be able to either answer or refine those most important questions?”

There is a never-ending array of options for technology organizations to work on. It’s remembering the end goal that helps create impactful change for a business.

Lesson 11: Communicate your vision clearly

This quote didn’t actually make it into an episode, but was worth including here.

In a post-recording conversation with our host, co-founder and CEO of FusionLayer Juha Holkkola reminded listeners that while having vision is important for a technology leader, “it’s important that people understand that vision, and they share that vision.”

Again, understanding technology is important. Equally so is communications finesse, idea socialization, and for lack of a better term, internal marketing.

That’s all, folks! See you back next week for a second dose of insights and inspiring quotes from the very first season of Network Disrupted.

In the meantime, why not listen for yourself on the newly designed Network Disrupted website, and tune in to new episodes dropping every Wednesday. 

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