Mark McDonald

A member of the Gartner Blog Network

Mark P. McDonald
8 years at Gartner
24 years IT industry

Mark McDonald, Ph.D., is a former group vice president and head of research in Gartner Executive Programs. He is the co-author of The Social Organization with Anthony Bradley. Read Full Bio

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#1 IT is Horizontal — 12 Things every business leader should to know about IT —

by Mark P. McDonald  |  March 22, 2009  |  8 Comments

“If only the business understood IT, then the company would get move value out of IT.”  This statement is a common belief among IT professionals.  Understanding begins with the basics, framed in a language that is acceptable to the audience rather than the teacher. 

A company has difficulty understanding IT in the language that IT speaks: applications, databases, technologies, etc.  But, what language do executives and managers use to understand something and its role in the company.  The answer is straightforward, think back to the last time you were at a party and someone asked you/or you asked someone “What do you do?”  Chances you talked about your job title, role and position in the organization.  

Talking about IT using the language of organization, its role, what it does, position, etc provides a starting point for teaching the business about IT.  Using this staring point here are a twelve things that every business leader needs to know about IT.


1. IT is horizontal

Look at any organization chart and you will see vertical oriented vertical organizational teams each with a specific focus and revenue stream.  IT may appear as a separate vertical group on the organization chart, but works horizontally across multiple business units (see figure below).

Legal, finance and human resources are other horizontal organizations, often bundled together in a ‘corporate services group.”  IT can be organized into such a group, but IT is different because is a hybrid organization which is the next thing.

So What?

Recognize the unique organizational capabilities within IT and its role as the only corporate wide function with direct operational responsibilities.  Take advantage of ITs ability to recognize and work across the business units to raise performance – for example moving proven best practices between operating units.  Invest in IT management capability and business skills to take full advantage of its unique role.  Demand that IT raise its business impact and deliver enterprise level performance.

CIOs and IT executives need to stop harping that “IT is different” because every organizational unit within the enterprise is different.  If there were no differences between units then the organization chart would be a single blob – everyone reporting to the CEO. 

Instead of highlighting the differences CIOs must explain how those differences create unique value and contribution to the company and its ability to execute its strategy.  Engage the business across business units because you can and show the enterprise that the sum is more than its parts. 

What is the second thing that every business leader needs to know about IT?  

IT is a hybrid organization — that is the focus on the next post.


Category: CIO Leadership Personal Observation Strategy     Tags: , , ,

8 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Tom Honan   March 23, 2009 at 7:10 pm

    I have found a great opportunity when leveraging the horizontal nature of IT is to identify and socialize a common solution across different verticals in the business. The basic foundational pieces of the IT infrastructure are obviously horizontal, think network, email, etc. It is harder, but can be much more valuable, when you are able to work with the business leaders to help them see other applications or services they can share. It does seem easier to have those sorts of discussions during periods of business contraction,when everyone is looking for ways to cut their SG&A, than when they are in active growth mode.

  • 2 Mark McDonald   March 24, 2009 at 5:19 am


    Thanks for your comments and yes sharing or leveraging resources across business units are important in these tough times. Unfortunately not every executive recognized IT’s position as a horizontal organization to facilitate that leverage

  • 3 liu   March 30, 2009 at 9:36 pm

    IT is likely a virtual of company.Any part of a company will have a image in the IT infrastructure.So from different view ,it can be horizontal and also can be vertical.The key factor is what is you view.

  • 4 Mark McDonald   March 31, 2009 at 8:36 am

    Liu yes IT is like a virtual company and it does have these different aspects. However, this can lead IT to think of itself as something separate from the business, which creates a number of the issues facing CIOs and IT executives (alignment, budgeting, benefits realization).

    The horizontal comment in point 1 is to remind business people that IT is not a department, nor is it a corporate function, but an operational unit that touches every other part of the company — a horizontal unit.

    Thanks for your comment.

  • 5 Be curious on IT …. « CIO Inner Voice   April 2, 2009 at 3:48 am

    […] post I found interesting articles on Gartner’s Blogs created by Mark Mc Donald: “12 things every business leaders you should know about IT“. Do not hesitate to share additional […]

  • 6 12 Things every business needs to know about IT.   July 11, 2011 at 6:15 am

    […] #1 – IT is horizontal. This item points to the particular or peculiar position (depending on your point of view) that IT holds in an enterprise.  Effective enterprises take advantage of that horizontal nature to drive proven practices and integration across the enterprise.  Less effective organizations struggle with IT’s lateral nature, which often arises, at budgeting and funding times as everyone benefits from IT but no one wants to pay for it. […]

  • 7 Avoid the trap of false precision   November 30, 2011 at 12:16 pm

    […] even more complicated as IT solutions bring together multiple parties, players and situations.  If IT is horizontal in an organization, then it can easily be the cause of every problem and the basis for every […]

  • 8 An IT value sampler for the holidays   December 19, 2012 at 10:41 am

    […] A sampler would be incomplete without a few extras, so here is a final post about the 12 things every business leader needs to know about IT.  […]