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Our current approach to IT isn’t sustainable - how can CTOs shift to business priorities?

John Appleby Profile picture for user john.appleby October 12, 2022
How can tech leaders overcome competing priorities - and be the conduit for strategic change? John Appleby of Avantra says a systematic approach to automation is needed.

Business systems colleagues juggle priorities with post-it notes © Elnur - shutterstock

A recent customer meeting highlighted the extent of the friction and frustration many IT leaders continue to face; keeping the lights on while helping to deliver a company strategy.

As our conversation unfolded, there was absolutely no doubt as to the organization’s purpose and the direction the business is headed. Like many of our clients, the focus centered around the customer, brand awareness and creating demand for its product.

But my customer couldn’t fathom how his skilled team would overcome competing priorities of managing the business-as-usual demands – and contribute tangible value and innovation. It echoed thoughts I’ve heard many times before.

Competing priorities stand in the way of strategy

It used to be that IT leaders who understood the business imperatives were a rare breed. But since taking an active seat in the boardroom, CTOs and CIOs alike have become vocal and valued contributors to the overall business strategy. Figures from McKinsey show that 84% of leaders believe innovation is critical to growth; they will evangelize the difference that technology can make to an organization’s ability to respond to the market, differentiate the brand from competitors and create new channels to market.

Yet despite this passion, delivering on the vision remains out of reach. It’s easy to see why. When you look across the SAP landscape for instance, there are numerous competing priorities that are orthogonal; the enterprise infrastructure must be maintained and monitored to ensure it remains stable and available, and it must be upgraded so that it continues to be effective and supported.

But there’s also an expectation that while all this is being done, another hand spins the plates of modernization – moving to the cloud or introducing applications to support other critical business objectives for instance. But as my client said, “Who has time to do that?”

To put this into context, it’s not unusual for a mid-size enterprise to be spending $100,000 every day in running costs, using 70% of a team’s capacity. The other 30% is spent just upgrading existing kit. None of this activity or investment is helping the business do anything differently – like engage the consumer in a more exciting way. It’s simply treading water, yet it can’t be neglected.

What sort of thing would help engage the customer? Investing in a marketing automation system. That’s about buying software and renewing it, adding new features and modules as you need to. There won’t be any real infrastructure costs, and there’s no heavy lifting. Easy.

Except it’s not, because of the 3D game of chess being played at an infrastructure level to keep the wheels on – and that’s before we talk about integrating the new marketing automation system into core systems.

Stop the tail wagging the dog

I’m yet to meet a CTO who doesn’t agree – if they could reduce the 70% drain on resources by 3-5% over the course of 10 years, it would make a dramatic difference to the business. They know that constant ‘feeding and watering’ is dragging the IT function down. They recognize that vast consumption of people’s energy and money isn’t sustainable - if they want to compete and stay in business.

But when you’re in the trenches, it can be hard to see how you can change anything, or where to start. That’s the point at which the discussion on automation should start. If teams can firstly identify the daily tasks that could be moved from a manual process to an automated one, and then make it happen, they are giving themselves a chance to transform how they work and contribute to the future.

Research from Deloitte shows that 55% of an IT budget goes on keeping operations running and only 19% on building innovative new capability. It’s therefore easy to see that a 2-3% reduction alone would potentially save millions over the course of a year, and hours of time that could be used to introduce the applications the business craves.

Be strategic about where you start

There are plenty of examples of companies that have successfully gone down this path and have even started to shift the culture of the organization to one of hyper-automation (our Avantra use case collection has some compelling examples). But as much as I am an advocate for this approach, I do urge caution.

Don’t set yourself a 2% target for the sake of having a target, or because that’s what you think a contract with a partner should say. Be reasonable about what’s possible and be strategic. Find the areas ripe for automation and focus on them.

A good approach is to plot the impact automating a process would have versus the difficulty to do it, and use the analysis to build a plan that produces some quick wins. It might be that you start with the tasks people loathe to do, so you can energize the whole process and move the dial on employee engagement and motivation to adopt more automation.

Whatever you decide, building a systematic approach to instigating lasting change should guide the way. In my experience, it’s the best way to influence both ends of the organization; the CXOs will start to benefit from the reinvestment of released capital, and employees will see the value in making their job easier. Not only that, but I’m certain they will grab the opportunity to learn and do other things that make a real difference to the customer.

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