IT as ID: Develop Your Company-Wide IT Identity
By Margaret Chock
Innovators & Entrepreneurs, February 2021
Your organization’s business identity is its mission and vision as perceived by the outside world: that is, by customers, employees, and the general public.
A large and increasing part of that image is shaped by your company’s IT identity; the public’s perceptions of its use of information technology. As you set out to define your company’s purpose, then, it’s important to consider both of these identities in tandem.
Define Your Business Identity
If you don’t already have a business identity, developing one is a good exercise—but if you’re just starting out, don’t cast it in stone. As your business picks up, you may find that your customers want something altogether different from your carefully planned products and services.
For instance, I originally intended for my company to sell the terrific image-processing and spatial-modeling software I had developed in graduate school. However, I eventually learned enough about business to understand that there wasn’t a big enough market for this product among organizations that could afford to sustain my business. By that time, I was supporting my business by consulting in related areas—a totally different identity.
To develop your identity, first define your mission: why does your organization exist? What is its purpose? How do you explain that purpose to other people? Sometimes, your mission can shift over time. At first, mine was to give the world the benefit of my beautiful software system. Now it’s to help people use technology developed by others.
Next, define your vision: what are you going to do to make that mission real? Generate a succinct description of the products and services your organization will actually provide. My original vision was to sell the whole software package, install it and train people to use it. I also intended to provide output from my own copy of the system to assist those who didn’t want to own it. Now my vision is to talk to business owners about their technology-related problems and help them find and implement solutions.
How IT Identity Reflects Business Identity
Often the first, and sometimes the entire, impression of your business identity is technological. Your clients will most likely become aware of you through your corporate website or social media, online ads, and maybe even your automated telephone system. That’s why it’s critical to develop an IT identity.
A business identity may have both external and internal components. Usually it focuses on how the company presents itself to its customers, but it might also include its relationship with its employees, its vendors, the environment, or the general public.
For instance, do you want your clients to perceive your organization as safe and reliable, or as innovative and creative? Are you similar to a bank, or to an advertising firm? In the former case, you might want your website design to be simple and dignified, with tried-and-true design elements you can likely buy off-the-shelf for little cost. In the latter case, you might want to purchase outside help if your web designer is one of the weaker members of your creative team. But you must also consider how these choices register internally: they might indicate to your staff that, in the first case, web design isn’t very important, or, in the latter case, that your regular web designer isn’t that great.
You may face a similar conflict regarding the reliability of your systems. For instance, should you spend more money on sturdier hardware or invest in a better user experience? The former will please your IT operations staff; the latter will provide more challenging work for your software developers.
How to Build an IT Identity
You can build an IT identity by keeping your mission and vision at the front of your mind while developing the technology for your organization.
1. Base it on business strategy: add business goals and objectives
Make sure you design your IT identity to support the goals and objectives that define your business identity. In other words, you should always keep your underlying mission and vision in mind.
Goals are the final component of a business strategy: the specific steps to be taken to realize your vision. These steps should be formulated to fit the SMART acronym (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and timely)—clearly defined actions that you can accomplish in a reasonable amount of time to move you toward your vision.
After you outline your goals, you can develop your IT strategy to encompass your plans, such as how to:
- Keep the technology supporting your core product/service secure and up to date.
- Support planned extensions of your offerings.
- Expand your numbers of customers, while taking into consideration highly unpredictable growth rates.
- Expand your skills—or automate or outsource your processes to make them easier to support.
With luck, your business and IT plans will converge, but they may result in a set of competing priorities. For instance, one trade-off is security versus ease of use. Extra precautions like two-factor authentication can affect the cybersecurity consciousness of your employees, but they can also make your product a little harder for prospective customers to use, and possibly discourage them from trying it out.
2. Define Your Routine Processes
Defining processes—that is, documenting the way you’re running your business—is an important step before investing in new IT. Setting your methods down on paper has additional benefits for your business strategy:
- You’re less likely to forget to do something important or drop back into less efficient methods.
- You can train someone else quickly when you need to do so suddenly (or not-so-suddenly).
- You see where you could be more efficient; for example, two similar steps could be combined to be performed as one.
It’s also a good idea to make notes about important tasks and the best ways to approach them. Organize them into a checklist (or set of checklists) so that you don’t forget steps. Later, you can look for ways to use software to complete some tasks for you, or if you add staff or outsource, you’ll have a clear explanation of what’s needed.
For example, your scheduled routine might look something like this:
- Start of day:
- Check calendar.
- Run backups.
- Run software updates that include possible security fixes.
- Clean up email; respond to urgent messages.
- Note yesterday’s contacts with clients and others.
- Start the rest of today’s task list.
- End of day:
- Run shutdown process.
- Set up next week’s appointments.
- Follow up on delegated long-term tasks.
- Catch up on technical reading, at least headlines.
- Strategic plan review.
- Tax preparation.
You’re never going to get everything done that should be done or protect every bit of data. Identify what’s most important in all aspects of your business: tasks, prospective clients, information you’ve recorded. How do they contribute to your vision? Develop simple ways of labeling the priorities so you don’t spend a lot of time trying to remember what you decided, and so they’re easy for your staff to remember.
For instance, which data should be encrypted? If you’re using it a lot, encryption and decryption cost time and money, but the more sensitive your information is, the higher the value of the extra security. You can’t (at least at this time) provide maximum protection to everything, so prioritize your most sensitive information.
I prioritize tasks as well, trading off urgency with importance—early morning cleanup isn’t as important as client work, but not cleaning up creates a mess fast, so it’s generally a higher priority.
4. Choose your tools
Consider which digital tools and programs will be most useful for your company and best fit your business identity. Here, we’ll address tools that are useful for managing a wide range of organizations.
When selecting technology, there’s a concern called “vendor lock-in”: that is, if you buy too much of your technology from a single vendor, you’ll be stuck with them forever, unable to move easily to better products from someone else. For a very small company, I don’t think that should be a concern. On the contrary, with a single vendor you also get “one throat to throttle”—if something goes wrong, that entity is clearly responsible, and you aren’t stuck with two organizations blaming each other for your problem rather than trying to solve it. Also, if you are a small company, part of your vision could be a partnership with that single large vendor.
If you do go with multiple vendors, verify that they’ll work well together, and at least be able to import and export data that the other can use. When your company is just starting out, it’s best to avoid custom interfaces between systems whenever possible. Otherwise when one company upgrades their software, the upgrade may not be compatible with your interface, and you’ll be stuck re-doing it. Simply ignoring the change may not be an option; it might be required to maintain support from the vendor, and more critically it’s likely to include security updates that you’ll need to defend your systems.
As you’re selecting your tools, a useful rule of thumb is to look at your competitors and similar organizations to see what they’re using. Which programs are most popular? In many cases, they may be your best choices:
- The technology might be popular because it’s really good.
- With lots of customers and users, that vendor is less likely to go out of business.
- If you run into problems, it’ll be easier to find someone who’s had the same problem and knows how to fix it.
- If you eventually hire someone to run your IT for you, it’ll be easier to find someone who knows how to use your chosen programs.
Of course, all of the above must be weighed against factors specific to your organization. For instance, if your organization is a technology company, every tool must be chosen to support its technology, or at least not to interfere with it. And if you find that your tools conflict with your IT identity—you might need to revise that identity!
In Closing: Be Mindful
So, as you develop IT plans, processes, priorities and systems for your organization, always keep your IT Identity in mind. Ask yourself: How will your choices affect your stakeholders’ perceptions—and what messages will they send to your customers, employees, and other people you care about?
Statements of fact and opinions expressed herein are those of the individual authors and are not necessarily those of the Society of Actuaries or the respective authors’ employers.
Margaret Chock, PhD, CMC, is a Computer Science Ph.D. and Certified Management Consultant. Her book IT Management for Little Companies distills lessons learned from her own practice and decades of work with both very large and very small organizations. Visit Margaret’s website to learn more: https://www.mibchock.com/.