Trouble around every flowchart.
I venture out into "the business" to seek out new opportunities to help out on a regular basis. I am fortunate that the CEO of my company is fairly amenable to the idea of this level of interaction with IT, and we have regular conversations about all aspects of the business. There are places he sees inefficiencies, but some times has no ideas on how to improve them, whereas I know of a technology or a program that could be put into place to make that issue go away. Some days, he will walk in with a problem, and ask if we can form a solution for it.
This form of interaction is something I have found business owners very open to. Not only at my current place of employment, but top level individuals at our customers, previous places of employment, contracts I’ve worked, etc. These people have a stake in finding inefficiencies, and they are not above working with the grunts in IT to make things happen.
Rather the opposite is true the farther down the totem pole you go. When you wander about "the trenches" asking around about how things are done you have to be extremely careful how you go about it. Especially in these days, people are paranoid all over about job security. Many people take an envoy from IT asking about their jobs as a sign that they are about to be replaced by a shell script.
It is all about people management. There are ways to approach this "quest" that can inform you on how to "win friends and influence people." The further down the totem pole you are asking questions, the more you have to present it as researching ways to help that individual make their job easier, and the less you have to talk about anything related to "efficiency" or "to help the company."
Bearing all of the above in mind however, you need to talk to everyone you possibly can, up and down the entire stack of staffs to truly get a grip on how things are run. Only when you have a clear picture of what people do and why can you bring your technological expertise to bear finding solutions to the problem. The very last thing in the world you want to do is put in place a solution for the proles that only works around something the bigwigs purposefully wanted. Conversely you must be equally alert to situations where what the bigwigs are wanting is simply going to trigger the proles to develop a workaround.
I have often found that IT staffs for better or worse feel themselves "apart" from the rest of the company. While the purpose of much of the research that El Reg and Freeform Dynamics seems to be doing is about "bridging that gap, and making IT more apart of the company," I posit that it is our very distance from these business processes that gives us an edge. I have found an outsider’s perspective can be very useful, especially when that outsider’s job is to plug every hole he finds with a bit of technological wizardry aimed at solving problems.
In my case, this has worked best when I am doing so as a staff member in the company in question, and not as a consultant. There is less resistance to the advice, and less feeling that it is being offered "simply to get more work." I know it goes against what a lot of IT people believe to go actually looking for problems, however I suggest that in gaining a clearer understanding of the overall picture of business needs and processes, you will often find that less, more precise work will do far better than the large amounts of "change requests" that come from hunkering down behind the helpdesk and waiting for trouble to find you. A proactive approach versus a reactive one…that’s what the debate is about, hmm?