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by Jess Iandiorio
As cloud hosting has become part of the technology landscape, offsite technical expertise also has become the norm. This has changed the game for IT, greatly simplifying the configuration, operation, and support a company's technology infrastructure.
"Acquiring and implementing technology is no longer the secret sauce of IT," admits Tom Catalini, the chief information officer at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
Yet, to Catalini, these are positive developments. "IT pros have a much better opportunity to really engage in the business now," he says.
Catalini, president of the Boston Society of Information Management and a prominent blogger (http://www.tomcatalini.com), believes that what business leaders are looking for today is "help in developing increasingly sophisticated strategies and innovations to improve the business, using technology."
To deliver on that, IT pros need to know their company's business, and take a leadership role.
Fortunately, they are in a good position to learn. The IT department offers a unique position to view an organization's operations from both a broad perspective, when working with major systems, as well as up close and in detail from a variety of vantage points when working on support or enhancements.
That can be powerful, if the IT pros are paying attention to the right things, Catalini says. If they keep their heads in the bits and bytes, they will miss out.
So Catalini's advice: IT pros should actively pursue knowledge of the business. They should get to know the business model – how the place makes money, who the key suppliers are, what the major components of the operating costs are, and what key metrics the senior executives use to monitor and measure organizational performance.
That kind of high level understanding of the business, combined with the detailed operational knowledge, is a very valuable combination. It’s useful for focusing efforts in IT more strategically, putting them within the context of a business framework. And this positions the IT staffer to provide advice and counsel to business leaders in a way that others in the organization simply can’t.
"I think the IT pros that make this sort of persistent effort, over time, to learn and to actively help evolve the business will be most successful," Catalini says. "The ones that go well beyond domain knowledge in IT, the ones who put some energy into actively seeking out opportunities to help shape the future of the business -- they’ll be quite valuable to the organization."
Catalini's views are echoed by Forrester analyst John Rakowski, who in a recent blog posting urged IT professionals to develop the "soft skills" like leadership.
"To build your brand as a great leader, be on the lookout for opportunities," he wrote, "be it high-profile cross-team opportunities and projects to get involved in, coaching opportunities to develop your staff and demonstrate your own experience, or visibility opportunities to communicate the value of your team to the broader organization."
Rakowski's prediction: The role of IT, and the infrastructure and operations professional, "will be more important than ever."
As strategic questions get more complicated, IT professionals can bring a high level of technical understanding to the discussion.
Richard Sanchez, the president of Miami-based cloud-computing company 0NL9, Inc., has moved hundreds of companies to cloud-based systems. He said that he's been impressed with many IT professionals who took the opportunity to get more involved with their companies' businesses.
At one client, an online educational firm, Sanchez saw members of the IT team actively ramping up their knowlege of e-learning software.
"That brought them closer to the purpose of the organization," Sanchez said.
Another example of technology leadership: an embrace of social media tools like Twitter and Facebook. Catalini is an active user of both, believing that to talk intelligently about strategy, an IT professional should be literate in social media, which means getting involved with it -- not standing on the sidelines.
"IT pros can’t sit by and wait for orders," Catalini said. "They’ve got to step up and get involved, offer up ideas, figure out how to navigate the organization politically, and figure out how to make things happen. They’ve got to take some risks.
"Everything won’t always work out," Catalini admits, "but every effort is an opportunity to learn.
"Those who step up and make an effort gain some notice and respect," he says. The reward for IT pros who seize these kinds of initiatives is obvious, according to Catalini: "They stand out."