So there you are, manning the laptop, doing your utmost best to guide your IT department and, of course, your company on to greater glories. Do you really need to network with your colleagues at other firms? For that matter, do they really have anything to teach you?
Peter Whatnell over at Sunoco has some thoughts on this subject. Whatnell is a bright guy: he’ s been in charge of Sunoco’s IT operations since 2001 (remember the dot.com crash?) and he is now the president of the Society for Information Management. Ben Worthen over at the Wall Street Journal recently had a chance to sit down with Peter and have a chat about the importance of remembering to look outside the company for ideas.
Whatnell makes the good point that the colleagues that you network with don’t even have to be in the same industry as yourself. As an example, if you talk with someone who is working in IT for the construction industry and they start to mention how they are starting to use mobile devices to quickly distribute design changes, then you may have found an idea that you can use in your neck of the woods.
One of the big questions that we all deal with is “am I giving away competitive information if I talk shop with a colleague from another firm?” Whatnell makes the point that by now we should all be able to realize that what makes our firms competitive is not the underlying technology that we use. Talking about technology is not going to reveal any big company secrets.
What makes our firms competitive is how we go about using these pieces of technology in order to solve the problems that our firm is facing. This means that even if you and your competitor have access to the same technology, you’ll end up putting it together much differently.
Whatnell believes that the true source of a competitive advantage is knowing exactly how you can use IT to help make your business more successful. One interesting way to do this is to ask key executives how the firm makes money. If they don’t know, then this is an area that IT can help simplify.
In these tough times, it’s interesting to hear what Whatnell has to say about what his biggest challenge is. Sunoco is an oil company – it’s a commodity business that’s competing in a mature market. In order for Sunoco to be successful, the firm is going to have to find a way to become THE low cost provider.
What this means for IT is that we need to find ways to help the business side of the house cut expenses, reduce cycle times, and improve their overall agility. The goal should be to avoid having IT being told to just “cut your budget to help our bottom line.”
In the end, Whatnell says that an IT department needs to have earned its credibility within the company in order to be able to be able to contribute to helping the company reduce costs. The key here is that you need to have already earned this credibility.
Do you routinely meet and talk with colleagues that work outside of your firm? Do some of these colleagues work in different industries? Does your IT department have the ability to work with the rest of the business to trim costs? Do you feel that your IT department has the credibility that it will need to have these discussions with the rest of the business? Leave me a comment and let me know what you are thinking.