Bridging the Gap Between IT and Your Business

For the past several years we have watched with increasing dismay at the increasing chasm between information technology (IT) groups and their business counterparts. From where we sit, both sides have legitimate beefs: IT complains that, despite the increasing penetration of technology into every nook and cranny of the business, it doesn’t have a seat at the table and no one understands how difficult their jobs are given the constraints under which they operate. The business complains that IT doesn’t understand the business, consistently overpromises and under-delivers, and slows innovation. CEOs, following the advice in Nicolas Carr’s famous HBR article, “IT Doesn’t Matter,” perceive little strategic opportunity in IT and devote as little time as possible to the issues. Finally, the usual calls for IT to get closer to the business only exacerbate the situation. Neither side fully appreciates how difficult this is. And half-hearted efforts are akin to putting in just enough energy to jump halfway across the stream.

Frankly, we are sick and tired of the bickering, especially since the most important point gets lost — the failure to derive the full advantage of information technologies does enormous disservice to companies. Further, the pace of technological change and the demands to do more with the data grow exponentially and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. The problem, strategic or not, must be resolved. Smart leaders will ignore the posturing and work to close the gaps.

While we have no “silver bullet” solution, we do offer three steps that can help.

Quit making the same mistakes over and over again. It seems to us that, in far too many companies, IT doesn’t have a fair chance. We see the same mistakes — some subtle, most not so much — over and over. IT is asked to do things, such as improve data quality, which it simply cannot do. People are not given adequate opportunity to provide input, nor educated on the new process and applications they are expected to use, and they blame IT for imposing something on them they do not like. IT is asked to the table far too late to advise on the difficulties of consolidating systems after a merger, then faulted when the task takes longer and costs more. Or business silos blame IT because “systems don’t talk,” when the root issue is that siloed departments don’t like working together.

None of these examples are new or different. Worse, too often we find people on both sides fully cognizant that they’re heading for a train wreck, and then hopping onboard anyway. It is time to put a stop to this. Both sides must acknowledge the mistakes of the past, resolve not to repeat them, and develop the courage to speak up.

Find common ground on medium-term issues. The motivation for our second step is the simple observation that organizations develop trust when they know what to expect from each other. We propose business and IT work in that direction by bringing a few tough technological trade-offs front and center, with the goal of finding some middle ground. These may include the COO’s demand for high systems reliability vs. the product manager’s desires to bring new capabilities online quickly; the CFO’s desire that systems standardize processes to keep costs low vs. the CMO’s demands that these same systems be flexible to promote innovation; or the apparent attractiveness of the cloud to CEOs vs. legal counsel’s concerns about data protection.

To find that middle ground, both should describe the trade-offs from their perspectives, illuminating important subtleties along the way. There will be plenty of differences, but the secret here is to find areas of agreement. It’s not so hard. We recall one case where six big issues came up — and 27 areas of agreement. At least for a time, forget about the six, select a few of the 27, and get to work on them. Good things happen. And in time the business becomes a better consumer of IT and IT a better provider of business services.

Finally, companies should ask, “How do we expect IT to help us compete?” Today, this topic simply doesn’t come up often enough, leading to a one-size-fits-all approach to managing IT, often as a cost center. That’s fine for most functions and processes in most companies, where middle-of-the-pack IT is good enough.

But all companies have areas where middle-of-the-pack IT is not good enough. Companies must invest in these parts of IT for the long term. Importantly, the critical investment is less in any particular technology and more in building organizational capabilities. For while few information technologies qualify as strategic — after all, they will be woefully out-of-date in three to five years — developing the ability to keep pace with the technology curve in these areas must be viewed as strategic.

Seen sequentially, step one clears the emotional clutter that poisons the relationship, step two enables IT to achieve “trusted supplier” status, and step three helps build a true business partnership in the areas that need it most. But we’re less interested in the order. Like it or not, we live in a tech world, from Apple to Hadoop to Zip files. You can’t ignore the fact that technology touches every facet of our lives. Better to get everything you can, leveraging every byte and every ounce of knowledge IT can bring.

The Data Doc adds ...

For the last twenty years, Tech departments have been encouraged to get closer to their business counterparts, to better understand their needs and directions and so deliver more, and to become a true “partner.”  But, with rare exceptions, it hasn’t happened.  The damage to Tech departments has been clear enough.  Over the past few years, I’ve made what I thought would be a provocative comment, “It appears to me that Tech departments are circling the drain,” many, many times.  Only one person has pushed back!

Bill and I went to great lengths to call out the larger and more important damage to companies in this post.  I see most things through the business lens, Bill more through the Tech lens.  So the steps we proposed aimed at finding a productive middle ground, acceptable to both sides.   In the ensuing eighteen months, the situation has grown worse. 

Those people and companies seeking to become increasingly data-driven should see an increasing urgency as well.  Here’s why:  The data-driven are voracious consumers of technology and their demands grow faster than everyone else’s. 

In particular, don’t wait for more senior leadership to fully embrace the steps Bill and I called for above.  Everyone can, and should take a small step, on his or her own initiative.  If you’re on the business side, take a Tech counterpart to lunch and ask, “what, within my span of control, can I do to improve my relationships with Tech?”  And give it a shot!

I find most Tech people find it more difficult to establish such informal contacts.  So you must first get up your courage.  Then, take a business counterpart to lunch and ask, “what, within my span of control, can I do to improve my relationships with business?”  And give it a shot!

Let me know how it goes.

Dr. Thomas C. Redman, “the Data Doc,” is President of Navesink Consulting Group.  He helps leaders craft programs to get in front on data quality, learn to compete with data, and build the organizational capabilities to do so.   His most recent article, “Data’s Credibility Problem,” appeared in the December 2013 issue of Harvard Business Review and his fourth book, Data Driven:  Profiting from Your Most Important Business Asset, Harvard Business Press was a Library Journal Best Business Book of 2008. Prior to forming Navesink, in 1996, Tom started and led the Data Quality Lab at Bell Labs. He holds two patents.  

Bill Sweeney has 35 years of technology experience and has served as CTO for HSBC’s IB, Sector CIO for Citigroup’s IB, and Head of Research Technology for Bridgewater Associates. He is the founder of Risk, Data, and Analytics, a boutique consultancy focusing on those three areas.

*Bridging the Gap Between IT and Your Business was originally published at