One of the great clichés of the business-IT relationship is “having a seat at the table.”  This is a cute, shorthand way of describing a business-IT relationship where IT is properly represented in the strategic leadership of the business (be that a business unit or the enterprise).  When we see this condition working well, we often observe characteristics such as:

  • Business strategy formulation and IT strategy formulation are converged – business strategy is informed by IT possibilities and vice versa.
  • Senior representatives of the IT function are part of the business unit (or enterprise) leadership team.
  • There are shared goals, shared rewards and shared consequences for business and IT leaders – creating what I’ve referred to in previous posts as a “confluence” between business and IT.
  • Business leaders display high IT literacy, and IT leaders display high business literacy – they can talk a common language that is crucial to their achieving common goals.
  • There is joint accountability between business and IT functional leadership for realizing value from business-IT investments.
  • While there are “pure IT” projects and programs (for example, IT infrastructure upgrades), most initiatives are managed as business initiatives – with a strong IT content.

This is all (hopefully!) familiar territory – nothing new here.  If this is not the way things work in your organization, you need to understand why, what it will take to begin moving to this kind of business-IT relationship, and take actions to move in that direction.  By the way, “business leadership just doesn’t get it!” is not an acceptable reason – it is incumbent on all IT professionals to take every opportunity to make sure the business “gets it.”  If that isn’t happening, you need to get back at it, and figure out different ways!

But there is an implication of the “seat at the table” that is less familiar, less frequently demonstrated, and yet an important part of driving business-IT maturity.  If we know what it means (and have achieved) an IT seat at the business table, isn’t there a corresponding and complementary “business seat at the IT table”?  I don’t think it’s especially helpful to think of this simply as the ‘converse’ of the IT seat at the business table.  Certainly, business needs to be fully and appropriately represented in IT governance – in fact, I’ve always preferred to think of this and enact it as business-IT governance, rather than IT governance.  Most (though not all) IT decisions are business decisions.  (See Peter Weill’s excellent November 2002 Harvard Business Review Article “Six IT Decisions Your IT People Shouldn’t Make“.)

Rather I think the “business seat at the IT table” its a way of recognizing and realizing the business responsibilities associated with good IT stewardship.  For example, responsive, contemporary IT leadership takes a more trusting approach to employee computing.  Rather than assume that employees are irresponsible, crooked and ignorant – looking for every opportunity to leak company secrets, bring viruses and worms past the firewall, and burn up CPU cycles and bandwidth in purely frivolous ways, the enlightened IT leader starts with the assumption that employees, given access to the right information in the right ways, are in fact, responsible, honest, informed and hard working.  (If they are not all these things, then that is a management issue to be promptly dealt with!)  This type of Theory Y over Theory X approach may well be essential to unlocking the power and potential of Web 2.0 and Enterprise 2.0.

However, the other side of the coin is that employees must behave responsibly, managers must pay attention to and manage inappropriate behaviors, with clear consequences rigorously enforced, with no exceptions.  This is what I think of when I think about “the business seat at the IT table.”  Think of it, if you will, as a new business-IT compact that will ultimately help free us from the productivity-draining “locked down” IT environments we’ve had to live with for the last few years, and open up the tremendous possibilities becoming available to humankind.  The world certainly seems to be in need of a positive shot of collaboration right now!