The most familiar model for information technology is a lot like fast food: The IT team takes the order—installing the wireless network, vetting video conference vendors, establishing security protocols—and they serve up the burger as cheaply as possible.
This approach isn’t wrong; it’s table stakes. The “technology shop” is the way IT touches most employees on a daily basis, but the business value it drives is limited.
Digital transformation—the adoption of digital processes and tools to achieve strategic business goals—is affecting all aspects of enterprise, and IT is no exception. That’s why we believe that astute IT departments are constantly looking for what’s next on the technological horizon and hold a unique point of view on business. With a focus on business strategy, architecture and interoperability, IT can shift its focus away from cutting costs to actually driving growth for your business.
As VP of business technology at Slack, I and my team are at the center of this shift for a company that’s grown to more than 1,200 employees. Here’s a look at the principles we’ve leaned on to broaden what IT can do for our business.
Business technology: our approach to IT at Slack
While the technology landscape has shifted, the IT moniker has not. Information technology traces its roots back to post–World War II, when the “electronic data processing” department programmed mainframe computers.
Fast-forward to today, and the consumerization of IT has led employees to expect the same types of simple, intuitive technology solutions at work as they use in their personal lives.
In addition to making sure we provide employees with those exceptional technology experiences (with Slack at the core), my team is considering questions with much broader business implications:
- How can we create the maximum impact for Slack as it scales?
- How do we move with the times, when the nature of work and the expectations of the technology consumer have changed?
- How do we extract the most value from the data we have?
- How do we expand on our operational focus areas to ensure that we become technology partners with an emphasis on business results?
The answer to each of these questions represents a growth opportunity for our business. As a result, we’ve repositioned our team from IT to business technology to better represent our team’s aspirations.
“We embed members of business technology into marketing, sales, finance and beyond. This allows us to truly understand our shared problems (and how to solve them) instead of parachuting in and attempting to ‘install’ a solution.”
Our mission is to simplify how our employees use technology, giving them effective and insightful solutions that will enable them to do the best work of their careers. To accomplish that, we needed to shift from taking orders at the counter to proactively consulting with the rest of the business. Today, we lean on empathetic relationships with our partners and a deep understanding of their needs to suggest new technology solutions.
3 ways your IT team can drive business results
As we move into a world where IT is optimizing for business, the definition of success changes. Our team’s success is measured in three outcomes: simplicity, impact and insight. None of these are exclusive to Slack; rather, they can drive results for any business, from a high-growth tech company all the way down to a brick-and-mortar retailer.
Make no mistake, IT is in the user-experience business. So how do you create a better user experience for employees? For us, that means listening closely and developing ideas that will remove friction from their workday and make technology easier to use.
Often this results in automating simple tasks that happen at scale. For example, we recently heard from managers that the context-switching required to approve paid time off and expenses was leading to overlooked requests. To simplify this process, we built ApprovalsBot, a custom tool that funnels these requests straight into Slack.
Managers can approve requests directly inside the message from ApprovalsBot, which eliminates the need to leave the task at hand behind and log into another system.
We use technology to create new business models, and we recommend strategic ideas that will drive results. We have a tight partnership with our company counterparts based on alignment to shared business goals.
A highlight of this approach is our partnership with Slack’s sales team. Together, we automated roughly 50% of the steps required to approve sales quotes for potential customers. These approvals are now made faster, which means our sales team is closing deals faster too.
We help our users access and explore data easily. We identify data sources and analytical tools that turn facts into insight, which brings more opportunity and metrics magic to every employee’s work.
For instance, we recently partnered across our sales, finance and product teams to introduce a new real-time metrics platform, Slack Analytics Studio. The goal: to democratize companywide access to data.
This tool powers MetricsBot, which pipes certain performance metrics into a
#company-metrics Slack channel, open to all employees. For those who need more precise metrics, Analytics Studio lets select employees access specialized dashboards that reflect how developers are using our platform, our growth in specific geographic locations and more.
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Embedding IT: how to develop intra-company empathy
To actually deliver on simplicity, impact and insight, developing empathy with cross-functional partners is non-negotiable.
As we’ve learned, large-scale change is most effective when it puts people first. That’s why we embed members of business technology into marketing, sales, finance and beyond. This allows us to truly understand our shared problems (and how to solve them) instead of parachuting in and attempting to “install” a solution.
My colleague Ivan Harrow, who partners on business technology solutions with Slack’s sales, marketing and legal teams, sums up this relationship well: “We become part of their team. We meet with them regularly, prioritize sprints together and plan for upcoming quarters to better understand their challenges and recommended solutions.”
The line where IT ends and another line of business begins should be invisible to your cross-functional partners. When developing relationships with these teams, here are some questions to guide your approach:
- Can you clearly articulate your business partner’s business goals and challenges?
- Are you proactively briefing your partners on technology that could unlock growth in their line of business?
- Is your team represented at partner weekly team meetings?
- Are you doing quarterly planning with your partners?
Our 5 formulas for delivering better business solutions
When I talk with Slack customers about how to move their IT strategy in this direction, a common theme emerges: How do you take a concentration on simplicity, impact and insight and organize it into focus areas?
At Slack, our IT solutions fall into five buckets. Four of these are a universal fit for any business, while the fifth is a benefit of using a collaboration hub like Slack.
- Employee Services: Focus on productivity essentials, employee experience and continuous improvement. This is the foundational, fundamental aspect of IT.
- Enterprise Architecture: Build for scale through simplification and interoperability between systems to support our business flows.
- Business Systems: Enable agility in our business through automation and creating flexible systems to support growth.
- Business Intelligence and Data: Enable access to high-quality, insightful, intuitive information employees need, within the context of where they need it.
- Slack on Slack: How we improve work within our own walls. We leverage and build on our own platform—using bots, apps and integrations to automate previously sluggish processes.
Take your focus off the finish line
The IT industry tends to be fixated on the finish line. Deliver the widget or finish the project, and move on.
When you refocus IT toward driving growth, you have to get comfortable with a finish line that’s out of sight. There will always be new technology to test, solutions to optimize and emerging threats to protect against.
Building an IT organization that can tackle this takes time and, more important, the right people: specialists who can take best-of-breed technologies and fit them together in a way that creates new possibilities and capabilities for employees and the business. Together with tight cross-functional partnerships, IT can help drive where your company goes next.