Mario Martinez, network engineering manager for LINN Energy  in Houston, understands technology. After all, it’s his job.
But he realizes that his tech vision for the company simply won’t happen unless everyone — from top management to rank-and-file employees — has a clear understanding of what IT can accomplish.
“For a project to succeed, there has to be buy-in from everywhere,” Martinez says. “IT managers have to explain what they want to do and how it aligns with the goals of the business.”
For LINN Energy, a network, storage and communications upgrade was needed to keep up with the company’s fast-paced acquisition strategy; it has grown from a company with a handful of natural gas wells in 2003 to a top-15 independent-energy company today.
“We’re an acquisition-based company. It’s an aggressive model, and all our users have to move fast,” Martinez explains. “What we needed was a scalable environment that could move dynamically as the company acquired more businesses.”
So how can IT chiefs make sure that their plans align with those of their business’s leaders? Here are a few best practices gleaned from Martinez and other business managers and techies.
Apply some common sense, says Scott O’Neal, IS network and security manager for 21st Mortgage, a financial services and lending company in Knoxville, Tenn.
“You’ve got to show top management how IT either saves money or makes money — or both,” O’Neal says.
Management understood this all too well when 21st Mortgage ’s Barracuda Web Filter went down for a few weeks during March Madness earlier this year. When the managers reviewed the numbers at the end of that month, just about every one of the company’s business metrics were down.
“The number of applications, loans and payments all dropped during March Madness, and it was directly attributable to us not being able to block people from watching the basketball games,” O’Neal says. “Most of the managers didn’t even know what a web filter was before this incident, but when they saw the numbers, they understood the connection.”
O’Neal plans to use the same strategy to convince managers that the company needs a new automated backup system. With 21st Mortgage’s existing system, backup takes nearly 16 hours. It’s a drag on network performance and gives him only about eight hours to execute a system restore.
“I calculate that the company does about $50 million a month in revenue, which is about $1.5 million a day,” O’Neal explains. “Let’s say we have a system failure for two days — well, we just lost $3 million. That’s something business people can understand.”
Avi Solomon, owner of CIO Impact Consulting in Hollywood, Fla., agrees with O’Neal’s bottom-line approach.
“Management will typically only warm up to technology if it has a financial impact or it mitigates risk,” says O’Neal, formerly a CIO for a midsize law firm. “It also helps to show if a business process can be executed faster.”
When LINN Energy’s Martinez came onboard a few years ago, the company was using products from multiple manufacturers in each tech category. One of his first moves was to standardize on HP servers, VMware server and desktop virtualization, NetApp storage, Cisco Systems networking and Microsoft Lync for unified communications (UC).
Today, roughly 84 percent of the company’s servers are virtualized on four of HP’s BladeSystem c7000 chassis with ProLiant BL465-series servers. A storage area network runs over four NetApp V3240 controllers, and data travels across Cisco switches and routers.
The result? Lower cost for maintenance, support, licensing and training.
“The other great thing about standardizing with specific vendor products is that your staff doesn’t just have jobs, they can have careers,” he adds, noting that as the company leverages the entire Microsoft stack, the IT staff gains exposure to Exchange, Lync, System Center Configuration Manager and Operations Manager, and Windows 2012 Server.”
Before LINN Energy moved forward with its technology upgrade, close to 60 percent of the company’s workforce fell between the ages of 31 and 50. That’s one of the main reasons the IT staff chose Microsoft DirectAccess and Lync.
“We wanted to apply technology that people were accustomed to using, or even make it transparent,” Martinez says. “There’s no point in rolling out new technology if the users don’t accept it.”
He adds that a big selling point of Microsoft’s DirectAccess is its transparency. Now, remote users simply connect to the Internet and are on the corporate network. With the company’s previous remote-access solution, users had to log on twice. On the UC front, Lync delivers collaboration, presence, instant messaging, video calling and conferencing — services that improve productivity and help the staff work smarter — all in one platform.
LINN Energy built the IT upgrade into its corporate mission. Martinez says the company grew by more than 15 percent in the past year, and because of its scalable infrastructure strategy, it is now in a position to absorb new companies more easily.
“It’s all about process and procedure,” Martinez notes. “We acquire companies where the technology has not been upgraded for seven or eight years. But when we come in, we now have a defined checklist for what needs to happen.”
In the end, aligning IT with business is a two-way street, CIO Impact Consulting’s Solomon says: Companies that succeed are those in which top management appreciates IT’s value and nurtures its use.
“Remember that no matter how much IT understands the business, the management team has to see the IT department as a strategic asset and not just a cost center,” Solomon says. “Companies that fare best view IT as an enabler of the core business strategy.”