Given the current financial climate, the pressures to maximise the benefits from any investment made in technology are evermore pressing. In reviewing and assessing the current status of a corporate organisation it must ask at least three health-check questions.
  • Are we making every effort to ensure the embedded technological solutions are business enabling and are truly giving a return on the investment?
  • How do we successfully introduce new innovations within the operational fabric of the company to maximise business effect?
  • Is there effective governance in place to oversee the company's risks and quality assurance?

A plethora of material is available on the importance  of the chief information officer (CIO) and their role in securing corporate return. Yet in reality, can the CIO alone, whilst sometimes assisted by a chief technology officer actually deliver the full business benefit from the investment made in technology when so many influencing factors lie outside their control?

Every successful company is dependent upon an effective business community to maintain its market position, and hopefully advance it. In turn they are reliant on a number of central support facilities (ie HR, finance, facilities management, IT, procurement).

These central resources are in effect the heart of the company's operations and their efficacy directly impacts that of the company. Business end-users tend to see these services as being provided by separate, disparate departments run by different managers, who in turn report to different executive / board members. Each department has a separate strategy, budget and project priorities, with little or no collaboration with their peers.

Central support services rely on the IT infrastructure for effective delivery, which usually means that the CIO spends an inordinate amount of time coordinating activities between them. These activities can be either resolving operational and project conflicts for resource demands, or simply dealing with issues that are 'thrown over the wall'.

Resolving these issues can be exhausting and unnecessarily political with the potential to escalate to open warfare. The demands on IT come from various sources as it is no longer a nice to have facility.

Generation Y employees, for example, are pushing end-user expectations to new levels. The ease with which these flexible services are offered and supported reflects on how well the company is perceived and how attractive an employer it becomes.

Similarly central support teams need to consider their approach to corporate social responsibilities as this too affects staff retention. As a consequence HR have a vested interest in how end-user IT services are developed and supported.

Modern business practices dictate that support departments ditch their emotional baggage and stance on remaining separate and become united in the provision of integrated, professional business services.

Potential solution

One approach is to remove internal operational boundaries and restrictive practices through the creation of a shared service centre (SSC). As a single central facility it produces a business support service portfolio that meets the needs of the business community.

This is not just the pulling together of all central departments under one banner, but a complete redesign of how best to support the business under one management team led by a chief support officer (CSO) - or some similarly titled position.

Traditionalists balk at the suggestion, giving reasons why it will not work. Most of which are based on protecting current operational boundaries and incumbent careers. But in reality IT underpins all modern business practices and is integrated within its operational fabric.

So to suggest that central support functions are centres of excellence and should remain separate is ridiculous. In fact to maintain a separatist approach fuels inefficiency through the consumption of valuable resources resolving boundary disputes.

So what are the advantages?

The benefits of establishing a single, central support service organisation run by a single managerial team (that knows what makes the organisation tick) are:

  • The business community sees a single support organisation, managed by a single team with a business service portfolio.
  • The blame culture disappears, reducing inefficient resource utilisation and cost.

Treating the new structure as a single service organisation enables the departmental sub-structure to be designed around functional service delivery groups, managing resources as demand dictates. Reducing duplication of effort and inefficient working practices. Adopting a tiered support organisation working through vertical and horizontal structures results in a better deployment of valuable resources.

Tier 1 providing a one-stop shop for all business concerns, filtering and directing user calls to the most appropriate resource. That could be to tier 2, for desk visits, or designated tier 3 specialists. Collaboration between tiers and service groups is essential in the dissemination of support knowledge, with the aim of resolving most calls at tier 1. Adopting a tiered structure provides functional development focus: tier 2 being developed to address more than IT issues, leaving valuable expertise at tier 3 to focus on their specialisms.

A functional support infrastructure offers the opportunity to evaluate other cost effective resource sourcing strategies. Whether the service providers are internal or external should be irrelevant as quality assurance is a key managerial goal for all services provided.

A structured approach provides the opportunity to develop end-to-end business processes that are tailored to best meet end-user needs. A simple example being recruitment: When a business unit decides to appoint a new member of staff the joining process should ensure that the person becomes effective at the earliest opportunity.

That is, a desk is allocated, post room notified, laptop / PC suitably configured and ready to go, all email and knowledgebase accounts are set up, support services have all relevant personal information, financial and payroll accounts are established, etc. This should be a single business service.

By eliminating duplication resources can be placed on extending support service coverage to a seamless 24x7 operation, which is essential when working within a global model.

Focusing on providing business support services  encourages executive management to adopt a mature attitude towards the development of the relationship between back office and income generators.

The impact of a service change is no longer considered in functional isolation. No operational change to a business service should be authorised until all service groups and business representatives have considered potential impact.

Business risks, whether commercial, regulatory or legislative will no longer be considered in a silo manner. The management team will have better corporate-wide intelligence upon which assessments will be made, and a better understanding of the value of protecting the company brand.

Staff development opportunities are better as there are no longer any glass ceilings to restrict middle managers as there are opportunities to move horizontally within the SSC. Having a more holistic approach the management team will gain better insight on how new innovations can assist the company in maintaining, if not advancing, its market position.

Importantly the formation of a SSC will give the management team the clout that is required to make the necessary changes that are invariably associated with the introduction of new innovations.

Pulling together an eclectic team will, however, not be easy. The cultural difference between the merged teams will cause issues during the early days. But the main driver should not be ignored: to develop mature businesses process that are designed to future-proof the company. This is where the management team, which is responsible for effective resource utilisation, should step up to the mark and lead from the front.

So where is the CIO?

The SSC needs to be led by a CSO with the political and commercial astuteness to manage and evolve a large department, account for a large budget and develop a mature partnership with business communities.

Given the current position of IT, and the crucial role that the CIO has had with board members in managing its growth over recent years, it would seem a natural progression for the post-holder. It is the next stage in the evolution of the role of CIO which reflects upon the fact that IT no longer stands alone, but rather is an embedded component within the corporate machinery.

Of the incumbent central service heads the CIO has the best service management experience. Utilising KPIs to measure performance, balancing any consequential trade-offs of service quality against available budget, and managing suppliers are all aspects of a CIO role.

Also, the CIO is also well positioned to lead the business process re-engineering exercise that will drive the efficiencies. Without doubt the IT element of the SSC budget will be the lions share, as will the headcount. It is time that IT and those involved in its successful stewardship stepped-up to take the lead in establishing a business support infrastructure that is sufficiently agile to meet the demands of the future.