Selling IT to the business is a losing game

To accomplish anything, IT leaders should rely on the quality of their relationships, not the quality of their arguments

Propose that IT should support iPads, end-user choice, portal-driven "single-actor practices" or just about anything that isn't part of IT's current portfolio of responsibilities, and see what happens. You'll get a wide range of responses -- "wide range" in this case meaning a spectrum with spluttering outrage at one end and hysterical laughter at the other.

It's understandable. IT is stretched thin already. Business executives routinely insist we "do more with less" with a straight face, as if it means something. We're on call 24/7/365.25 (approximately) and because we're exempt employees, every after-hours call means we're making another non-tax-deductible donation to the company's shareholders.

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Why would we want to take on anything more?

Answer: Because it doesn't have to be like this.

The plain fact is that most U.S. companies operate in seriously dysfunctional ways -- so much so that those running and working in them exhibit the Stockholm Syndrome. (I have too little direct experience with the offshore variety to make general comments.)

The Stockholm Syndrome, in case you aren't familiar with it, is what happens to hostages after a while: They start to sympathize with their kidnappers. In this case, the "kidnapper" is the way too many companies handle investment decisions. The sympathy that's exhibited is on the part of employees, who look at something that's entirely bizarre and accept it as sane and normal.

For example: An employee comes up with an idea for making or saving the company a lot of money. Implementing it will require a modest capital investment ("capex" if you want to sound like you're part of the in crowd).

Companies have a process for this: The employee writes up a business case and submits it to the capex committee, which assesses it and, if it seems to hold water, invites the proposer to join it for a face-to-face discussion.

The discussion itself takes on the attributes of a star-chamber interrogation. If the employee survives it, the company funds the proposal, making it clear to the employee that doing so is an immense favor, for which the employee should be properly grateful. Because they suffer from the Stockholm Syndrome, most employees in this position do, in fact, not just express gratitude but actually feel it.

Everything is wrong with this, but the denouement is the worst: It's the company that should be expressing gratitude to the employee for coming forward with the idea, investing personal time in developing it, and enduring the interrogation. After all, it's the company that will reap the benefit, not the employee.

It doesn't have to be like this.

IT professionals tend to be orderly thinkers; often they're also the kind of person who views reading the instructions as a good idea before starting to, for example, assemble an IKEA computer desk. It's a job requirement. Faced with the official capex approval process, IT professionals, up to and including the CIO, read those instructions and figure, that's how things work around here.

It is how things work around here for everyone who doesn't understand and follow the real process that precedes the official one. The real process is a matter of building relationships, alliances, and trust with everyone who matters -- joining the club, as it were.

When a good idea shows up -- one the company should invest in -- whoever wants the idea to succeed makes use of their alliances and trusted relationships to explain and presell it, one-on-one, informally, before a business plan ever penetrates SharePoint's innards for storage and dissemination. (What -- you still use email attachments for such things?) This is especially important for IT because a lot of the capex IT needs is much harder to explain than, for example, "We need another forklift."

It's where far too many CIOs go seriously wrong. They think they have to sell the other executives on the value IT provides, on the value of enterprise technical architecture, on the value of staying current with respect to infrastructure releases -- on everything. If you're a CIO and you have to sell anything to anyone, you haven't built the relationships and alliances your career -- not to mention IT's success -- depends on.

To understand how this plays out, let's take the example we've been talking about the last couple of weeks: Encouraging employees to innovate, using the iPad as a target platform for their ideas.

First of all: Most CIOs, sad to say, wish iPads would just disappear. For the most part, they must feel like King Canute, ordering the tide to stay out. However, unlike these CIOs, King Canute knew it would come in anyway; that was the point he was trying to make.

Then, when pressure to support iPads becomes too intense to withstand, these CIOs, who also are the ones who haven't built a solid foundation of executive relationships, will grudgingly acquiesce to the pressure and write a policy that allows iPads and provides for integration with the company's email and calendar systems. Everyone in IT scrambles because they're already stretched too thin and this is just one more thing.

The result: IT looks bad for resisting iPads in the first place and worse for doing a poor job of it when it allows them in.

As for the CIOs who have built their foundation, a year or two ago they had a chat with the executives most likely to be interested. The substance of it: One way or another, iPads are in the company's future. To do a decent job of bringing them in won't be prohibitively expensive, but it won't be free either. By adding just a headcount or two, IT will be able to figure out what "support" means and make the preparations necessary for (continuing with our Canutian metaphor) rising with the tide instead of being drowned by it. By the way, since the company's customers will be buying iPads in large numbers, gaining experience and expertise with them both in IT and throughout the rest of the company will likely prove invaluable in addressing the needs and desires of those customers.

There's a meme floating around that says people make decisions based on their emotions, not on evidence and logic. The meme is just true enough that it's no longer subjected to close scrutiny, let alone serious challenge.

Here's what's really going on: People do make decisions based on their emotions, and one of the most important of those emotions is their sense of trust, or, as the case may be, distrust, in whoever is trying to persuade them.

Here at Advice Line we're going to talk about what next-level IT will look like and what it'll take to get there. For smart CIOs, the preeminence of trust over evidence and logic isn't a problem. It's their starting point for everything else it's going to take. The others? They'll rely on the outrage/laughter spectrum to insulate them from the possibilities.

This story, "Selling IT to the business is a losing game," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Bob Lewis's Advice Line blog on InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.