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IT decision-making in the boardroom

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IT is inextricably part of virtually all business activities and processes in the digital age. In order to make the right tech and data choices at board level, an optimal interaction between the IT leadership and the rest of the board is necessary. But that’s where things tend to go wrong. During the CIO Masterclass, with contributions from SPIE CEO Lieve Declercq and Anderson MacGyver co-founder Gerard Wijers, the language barrier was broken down.  

During her introduction, chairwoman Crystal Reijnen lightheartedly but aptly typified how people in the boardroom sometimes talk past one another when it comes to IT decision-making. The Anderson MacGyver consultant quoted an imaginary CEO who, after a day on the road with other directors, suddenly realizes that her company must do more with data. But, before the CIO can even enthusiastically come up with suggestions, the CFO already asked what it will all cost and the CHRO says it shouldn’t have too much impact on the employees. Any more good ideas, anyone?

Yes there are! The CIO’s ERP renewal proposal, for example. It’s needed badly as a foundation for a digital future, but unfortunately no one in the boardroom sees the need for a modernized backend. Recognizable? Quite so. “It’s good that IT is a topic of conversation in the boardroom,” says Reijnen. However, it is only the beginning of a long journey toward a value-driven IT strategy. “To get the maximum value from IT, you do need to have the board on-board.”  

Biggest annoyances 

Anderson MacGyver’s Gerard Wijers then reflected on IT decision making in the boardroom. A complex dynamic that often misses the core, because those involved often have a different point of view. This leads to misunderstanding, misalignment and even annoyance. “In the Netherlands we are rather fond of our freedom of mind and we are therefore rarely shy of opinions. Even if things don’t suit us,” says Wijers, who is also a core lecturer at Nyenrode and the Antwerp Management School. He listed the most important irritations on both sides.  

He listed the top five irritations business leaders have about IT professionals: they make everything complicated (‘good at explaining what’s not possible’), they deliver too slowly (‘dozens of years of backlogs’), they are too expensive (‘unclear business rationale for investments’), insufficiently aligned with the rest of the company (‘they have a different agenda’) and they speak a different language. Wijers: “Clouds, lakes, tribes, sprints – it is certainly not the idiom of an energy or manufacturing company.”  

Of course, the IT leader also has something to complain about. For example, inadequately formulated expectations in relation to a not infrequently unclear business strategy, and in the extension of that: unclear priorities. Another cause for friction is that IT is mainly seen as a cost instead of a source of value – partly because dedicated technology ownership is not anchored in the board. Finally, IT is just too poorly understood by a limited tech-savvy board.

Bridging the gap

What can you do to bridge all these gaps? The suggestions Wijers mentions are logically in the realm of communication, governance, experimentation, simplicity, roadmaps and priorities. More salient is the realization that there are different manifestations of IT (multi-modality) and an IT demand that is balanced with the often-limited delivery capacity. “For all of this, ultimately the people, the teams and leaders make it all possible.”  

That crucial human factor – including the confusion of speech to be avoided – was emphatically addressed in SPIE CEO Lieve Declercq’s contribution. In her transformation program, which included the goal of better aligning IT with the business strategy, she distinguished four key pillars: getting the IT and data house in order, driving innovation, and achieving growth. “As a people-centric company, we place the human factor emphatically at the heart of these changes,” says Declercq.  

Integral strategy

Shortly before, she had told about the reason for the change program within the Dutch branch of the multitechnical service provider. The company has grown strongly and is organized in a decentralized way, partly due to mergers and acquisitions. “Our customers are in sectors where technology plays a fundamental role,” Declercq told us. “Energy companies, factories, physical infrastructures. IT is defining the future of our customers, and therefore our own.”  

Many of these clients were more mature in terms of IT than SPIE itself. It was decided to formulate an integrated strategy from the board, of which IT was an inseparable part. This was then translated to all divisions, functions and people. A modern, future-proof IT environment was the springboard to better business results.

Multi-year program

This required a multi-year program that went beyond combining projects. In addition to discipline, perseverance and dedication, good interaction and coordination between IT and business was crucial. Anderson MacGyver helped to align activities, ambitions, organizational structure and the associated IT support from the beginning. This included selecting and implementing a new core application.  

Apart from the content of the program, according to Lieve Declercq, it is important that the CEO and other board members continuously ask questions. What does IT really mean for the company, for example in relation to a business model that may or may not change? What does the customer expect? What is the focus of IT – and is it cost or value? Is there a process for integrating rapid acquisitions? How do business and IT push each other to greater heights?  

Lieve Declercq: “Asking the right questions helps break down the language barrier. This is not only the responsibility of the IT function, but also of the other board members, including the CEO. IT leaders should expect me to make an effort to understand them.” 

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