CIOs need to care about client relationships

A client relationship management culture for IT? Why bother?

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We're already one tenth of the way through the 21st century, so I'm sure that by now you, as an IT leader, have heard that the most productive and effective IT function is one that is directly responsive to the needs of the business it serves. You've probably heard as well that in order to best serve the business in the way it needs, the IT function must have a "client relationship management culture," not a technology culture. You might even accept the idea that IT's very existence may depend on it moving from being an isolated technology management function to being a powerful and respected ally to the business.

Nonetheless, a good many of you at this moment could be thinking, "Right. That all sounds good in theory, but it has zero application to my shop here in the real world. We're too busy responding to urgent challenges and unrelenting deadlines to think about anything like that. We just don't have the budget or the time to make it happen, and I have my doubts that the business would even understand what we were up to. Besides, what would the measures of success be? We take our direction from the business, so we'll wait for the business to tell us how to make all of that happen."

I used to think the same thing, way back in the 20th century. But then I got a wake-up call.

It seems perfectly natural to me for IT professionals to resist the call to better understand and more fully serve the business. Like many of you, I pursued a career involving technology because I had a keen interest in it, not in business. I believed that IT professionals didn't need business acumen, a belief that's so widely held within IT's ranks that it has become a dangerous and destructive myth. Sure, I understood that the business's concern was making money, and I wanted IT to support that goal in every way it could. But anything beyond that, anything proactive rather than reactive, was not my responsibility.

My wake-up call came during a conversation with a member of the executive committee, whom I reported to. "We're very happy with how the IT function is productive and helping us avoid cost," he told me, and I was glad to hear it. But then he made it clear that the business expected more from us. "We'd be even more pleased if the IT team would occasionally bring us new ways that it could help us improve service and increase revenue." And then the kicker: "Could you see what you could do in that regard?"

My office was in another town, and the drive gave me time to think about that message. My team and I were being asked to introduce beneficial IT changes to improve business results. We were going to be expected to take the lead, whereas until then we had always waited around for new system requirements from the business.

And I had to admit to myself that I didn't fully understand what the business's customer acquisition or retention cycles were. I had a vague notion of the business's strategy, but not to the degree that I could influence the direction of the business with IT. If my knowledge was so sketchy, I had to assume that my staff knew even less.

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