Every business that wants to thrive today is focusing on the customer, with an eye to providing the best experience and delivering tangible benefits at competitive prices. That mindset should also be the rule in IT, enabling the CIO to run a high-performance business within a business that is focused on its internal customers.

That’s the view of Dean Meyer, founder of consulting firm NDMA, which specializes in organizational transformations. He’s also the author of the new book, Principle-based Organizational Structure, a handbook aimed at developing entrepreneurial thinking and teamwork while engineering high-performing organization charts.

Meyer is one of the original proponents of running IT as a business.

For IT, people outside the department are customers, but even within IT there are customer-supplier relationships,” Meyer explains. “As an example, infrastructure engineering provides its services to infrastructure operations, for such things as upgrades, support, and adding capacity. Every manager within IT should think and act like an entrepreneur.”

Internal entrepreneurship begins with the organization chart, Meyer explains. “Every job should be defined by what it ‘sells’, not vague roles, responsibilities, tasks, or processes”.

But there’s more to structure than just the organization chart. “Once IT staff know what businesses (within IT) they own, we build teamwork processes that are focused on our customers. Each project or service is unique.  IT is not a simple factory where you can engineer a fixed process. We have to assemble just the right people at the right time, with clear individual accountabilities and a clear chain of command within the team.”

The process Meyer describes is similar to building a home. There is a prime contractor, who hires subcontractors, who in turn buy from their suppliers. In IT, Meyer says, the project may be an application upgrade. So application engineers are the prime contractors, who might “subcontract” to database engineers, platform engineers, and project managers, who in turn may require help from others.

An ideal that few meet

Most IT organizations fall far short of this customer-oriented ideal, Meyer admits. They may try to engineer a few routine processes, but end up assigning responsibilities for tasks rather than for results – the antithesis of the entrepreneurial approach.

“My advice to them is not to engineer more processes, but to think in terms of a meta process. Every time a new project comes in, pull the leadership together to do a ‘walk-through,’” he says.

In a walk-through, the prime contractor is defined, along with all the subcontractors that will be needed. Everyone understands who is on each team, exactly what is expected of them, and what help they will need from others.

This business-within-a-business paradigm, he says, is the key to a customer-driven, service-oriented IT organization.

Four important steps

Meyer describes a four-step program for CIOs looking to migrate to customer-oriented business processes:

  • Deconstruct the organizational chart into a line of business under each manager, assuring that each one knows which business-within-a-business he or she runs.
  • Create a service catalog for each manager, so that each understands what they “sell” to clients and to each other.
  • Train the leadership team in the walk-through method. Start by practicing on a familiar project. Keep practicing until the walk-through method becomes intuitive for the entire IT leadership team.
  • Require a walk-through at the start of every project and early in the process of designing every new service, making it your customary way of doing business.

The challenge of staying focused

To really achieve and institutionalize customer-oriented business processes requires two to three years of leadership from a dedicated CIO. At that point, the business-within-a-business mindset becomes deeply ingrained as “the way we work around here” and is less dependent on one individual’s leadership.

In the end, building a customer-oriented organization is hard work, although the recipe and the concept are straightforward, Meyer emphasizes.

“The main thing to remember is when people in IT think like entrepreneurs operating their own businesses within a business, things fall into place. This is how the real world works, and you can apply these market mechanisms inside the organization. The result is a winning combination of customer focus, teamwork, creativity and innovation, frugality, morale and motivation, and accountability for results.”