I was interested to learn that nearly 80 percent of all IT organizations have steering committees and 69 percent of those organizations make full use of their committees, meaning the committees meet regularly to align IT's goals, objectives and priorities with the needs of the business, according to the Computer Economics (CE) IT Management Best Practices 2011/2012 study.
The use of IT steering committees ranks first as the most mature IT management practice out of 15 practices covered in the study. Steering committees, which usually include executives and departmental heads, set priorities among competing requests for IT projects, services and attention, among other duties, according to CE.
“Any IT executive whose organization is not actively engaging in these practices should be asking themselves why not?” said Frank Scavo, president of CE. “These practices have withstood the test of time. They would not be so widely practiced if they were not effective.”
I have no quarrel with those statements. What I do wonder, however, is how much actual power these committees have when push comes to shove. If we focus only on the IT universe in any organization, perhaps there is something to be said for the sway a steering committee would hold over IT-related decisions. But the reality of corporate life, in insurance organizations as well as in most companies, is that such decisions are not made in a vacuum, and that other forces within an organization (and outside it) are more likely to influence actions related to IT.
First and foremost among factors influencing decision-making is available funds. While budgets are budgets, one wonders how much discretion a steering committee would have in assigning funding to various IT initiatives. Recent studies have shown that IT departments themselves are often in a direct reporting relationship to finance, and that CFOs are more and more likely to be making decisions about how IT funds are allocated. How many of those CFOs will simply rubber stamp the recommendations of an IT steering committee? I really don’t know the answer to that, but I suspect that if money is the issue, the CFO will prevail.
So what role should an IT steering committee play? My take is that such committees—especially if they include members from across the spectrum of departments—should be more influential in determining final choices related to IT. A diverse committee will take into account various aspects of the business side, meaning that the traditional internecine struggle between IT and business will not be a major factor—assuming, of course, that the business and IT committee members can get it together enough to work for the common good of the enterprise.
The biggest problem with IT steering committees, however, is contained in their name—they are committees. Certainly, we want to take advantage of many minds in order to come up with the best ways to meet company goals, IT or otherwise, but the committee structure is not one that lends itself to quick decisions. Sometimes we just don’t have the time to allow 20 individuals to ruminate on and debate important issues, and that is increasingly true in our current market environment, where long-range planning has become an antiquated term.
My hope is that once the world economy has been stabilized—and that may not happen for some time—our IT steering committees will be given the time and respect they deserve in order to make solid decisions. Meanwhile, it’s every man (or woman) for themselves.
Ara C. Trembly (www.aratremblytechnology.com) is the founder of Ara Trembly, The Tech Consultant, and a longtime observer of technology in insurance and financial services.
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