How to Develop Business Acumen in the IT Workforce

August 01, 2016

Contributor: Kasey Panetta

Why CIOs should be having conversations, not giving commands.

It’s official. As the CIO of Big SoftWare Company, you understand the importance of taking digital to the core of the business. You know that in order to succeed, the company must innovate ways to implement technology in all aspects of the business. You understand that your job is no longer to just run the IT office, but also to find solutions to enterprise-level challenges.

The question is how do you, as the CIO or IT executive, communicate the message to your people and help them to understand the role of IT in the company?

“Developing strong business acumen in IT is a prerequisite to effectively shift IT focus from optimizing IT operational efficiency to driving business effectiveness, value creation and growth,” said Lily Mok, research vice president at Gartner. “At the heart of an effective IT communication strategy is the ability to clearly link the vision, strategy and action plans of IT to the business to drive desired behaviors in the workforce that contribute to improved IT performance and business outcomes.”


In the digital business world, it is essential that CIOs and IT leaders be able to show the role of IT within the business strategy. Business acumen enables CIOs to combine technology know-how with a broad understanding of the market and industry, and design solutions that create new business value and growth. The challenge exists in building the business acumen across the IT organization, so each member of the team can effectively execute on the digital business strategy.

Change the communication style

Companies with high effectiveness in communication and change management are 3.5 times more likely to outperform their peers. What differentiates the high-performing groups from the average IT department is a shift from top-down communication to conversation-based communication. This shift fosters “a culture of community and information sharing,” according to Ms. Mok. It also ensures a clear “line of sight” from the team projects to the company goals, offering a further connection from IT to the enterprise.

“ Gartner estimates by 2020, 100% of IT roles will require an intermediate level of proficiency in business acumen.”

Systematic communication practices will allow CIOs to clearly identify the changes in the business and how they will affect the IT strategy, establish clear roles and contributions on an employee level, and inspire actions and commitments to deliver better business results.

According to Ms. Mok, the goal is to ensure business acumen across every position in IT, which is a prerequisite to shift IT from a back-office support group to a group that drives business effectiveness, value creation and growth. As the organization matures and transitions, the need for more business acumen will increase. The key is to establish a communication style that links the vision for the company with the action plan of the IT department.

Raise awareness of the overall business context

A good IT strategy can be used both to define and reinforce IT operational context and raise awareness of how IT fits into the overall enterprise strategy.

The communication strategy will provide good line of sight for how IT relates to the overall enterprise, but CIOs can also find ways to raise business acumen among their own teams. Raising the business acumen will be a key requirement of future CIOs. Gartner estimates by 2020, 100% of IT roles will require an intermediate level of proficiency in business acumen.

Potential opportunities to raise business context awareness include:

  • Effective usage of the communication strategy
  • Guest speakers (i.e., other business units, external partners, customers) to educate IT on the business and its ecosystems or highlight current market trends and customer needs
  • Incorporate and reinstate key elements of IT strategy wherever appropriate to help the team prioritize work effort and keep projects aligned across the digital business
  • Focus on telling a good story when it comes to IT — finding a way to explain complex or abstract concepts in an engaging and inspiring manner

While there are challenges inherent in moving IT from a traditional support staff to a team intimately involved in the end goals of the organization, it’s a necessary evolution. With a clear, established communication strategy, CIOs can improve the business acumen of their teams and move them into an important role in the company.

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