At State Farm, we’ve become increasingly aware of the importance of creating a strong IT/finance partnership within our organization. As technology permeates every corner of our industry, it’s vital that our IT and finance shops work together to make sure we’re getting the most out of our IT investment. But we all know it’s not as easy as simply making it a priority. Perceived biases and misunderstandings can derail the relationship and prevent collaboration. As we’ve leaned into this work over the past few years, we have identified three keys to a successful IT/finance partnership.
"When IT and finance teams work together, a common trap to avoid is approaching the partnership with a narrow focus"
Creating a strong partnership began by inviting finance to help us honestly evaluate our IT efficiency and cost-effectiveness. If we were truly going to manage our IT shop like a business, we needed to allow our finance partners to ask us hard questions. Questions like, “Where is our technology investment going today and what return are we getting on that investment?” As you can imagine, going through that process required courage. Taking on important topics with the goal of changing old patterns and habits is necessary, but it can also be uncomfortable. Even if the answers to those critical questions reveal weaknesses or inefficiencies, no real progress can be made by avoiding them. One of the mantras that our organization has embraced recently is...‘courage over comfort’ and I think that is an essential ingredient in a strong IT/finance partnership.
When IT and finance teams work together, a common trap to avoid is approaching the partnership with a narrow focus. It’s easy to get caught up in a small view of ‘my product’ or ‘my department’ or ‘what is best for me’ when really our focus needs to be on the customer. Instead of hiding behind long-standing excuses—‘Finance just does not get IT’ or vice versa—we needed to broaden our perspectives to more fully understand our opportunities for improvement. As an IT shop, our approach shifted and we began asking ourselves how can we learn from finance and help them understand the technical side of our work so that they could help us improve.
The world around us is rapidly changing, and our industry is no exception. We have seen shifts in customer expectations and new types of companies are entering the industry every year, creating an even more competitive environment. Autonomous vehicles and ride-sharing services are already having an impact on the auto industry and the demand for insurance. In this marketplace, we simply can’t afford to approach organizational challenges with a ‘small’ view. We need everyone’s perspective at the table in order to remain the industry leader.
Often times, IT and finance are called upon to tackle complex problems that do not have easy solutions. Digging into this type of work together requires vulnerability and a willingness to be wrong, learn, and course-correct...in other words, humility.
When we began our IT transformation at State Farm two years ago, I recall several candid conversations between IT and finance. Early on in the process, finance had a vision for ‘fixing IT’ without truly understanding the complexities of the problem, while IT did not completely understand its inefficiencies and opportunities for improvement. Over time, perspectives on each side shifted and we were able to admit our shortcomings and ask each other for help.
One specific example of our partnership that I’m excited about is the role that finance is playing to transform our organization’s view of IT costs. As we try and share details of IT expenses with our different business areas across State Farm, finance is the one facilitating the conversation. Instead of using a crazy formula that few understood, finance worked with the business areas and IT to create a view of the costs that were more easily understood. It was a critical move because IT is now able to fully and equally participate in the conversation with the business. From this work, we also did some re-organization in our finance team to better dedicate resources to creating this three-way partnership. Rather than taking a backseat role and trying to build financial acumen quickly in IT and business, we made a bigger allocation to bring both our best facilitators and financial acumen to the table.
We certainly do not have all the answers, and we know that we still have room for improvement. But from our experience, we’re confident that if we master those three foundational characteristics—courageous conversations, customer-focus, and humility—we can continue making a difference for the organization and our customers.