Teaching Tech

By Allen Bernard

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For a long time now, CIOs have been told they have to learn the business if they want to be successful both in their jobs and in applying the right technologies their companies need to succeed.

But what about the business folks? Isn't there some responsibility on their shoulders to learn as much as they can about IT: What it can do, what it can't, and what it is doing — at least from a business perspective?

Laurie Orlov, a former CIO and now a VP and research director at Forrester, thinks so.

"There's so much opportunity to use technology more intelligently than there was six or seven years ago, that now it truly is very sad that the business people don't understand it," said Orlov.

What Orlov is proposing (and Forrester is beginning to market through its consulting arm) is setting up formal gatherings of line-of-business executives, curriculum in hand, to teach them what IT is all about today. This isn't the same as training them how to use their new Blackberrys but a way to communicate, for example, what goes into supporting all those new whiz-bang wireless features.

What gets taught is very company specific, but basic curriculums could include things like IT terminology; managing expectations about project quality; IT's role in business processes (why service-orientated architecture (SOA) is so important these days, for example); IT projects in the pipeline; and key application backbone systems, to name few.

The purpose of these classes is two-fold: first, educate those that are responsible for the use of technology in their lines of business, and the second, if all goes well, is to bring IT and the business closer together enabling better IT/business alignment.

While a little education alone won't solve this ever-present problem, said Dan Gingras, a partner at Tatum, LLC., education and communication are positive steps in the right direction. IT/business alignment is really a governance issue: good governance, good IT/business alignment; bad or non-existent governance, poor IT/business alignment.

"I'm not arguing against it. I think it's a great idea," said Gingras. "But I don't think it solves the problem. It's valuable. To solve the problem you have to put in governance structures to ensure continual alignment and that's not an event, that's a process."

One of the big problems, however, will be getting business people through the door. Having business folks lining up to learn about IT is not an experience most CIOs can relate to. To ensure participation, the classes would have to made mandatory. But, once business folks come to understand just how pervasive technology is in their jobs, Orlov believes the sessions will be very productive.

"(Business folks) would want to do this if they actually thought it through at all," suggests Orlov. "Because really IT is all around them. All of what they do, behind the scenes there's IT somewhere and too many business executives actually don't have a good appreciation of it."

Aberdeen's Wireless and Mobility Research Director Philippe Winthrop isn't quite convinced by this argument, however. He believes there is already a lot of educational opportunities for business people to learn about IT. Conferences are where a lot of end users get to know more about the technologies that enable their jobs, for example.

But, anything that helps bridge the chasm between IT and the people that depend in it is not a bad idea. You just have to be very careful that you construct the right curriculum for the right audience.

"Yes it is valuable but it depends on the audience," said Winthrop. "How often are (end users) going to care that the individual sitting in his or her cube, who is having problems with their email; do they really care it's being hosted somewhere and there's a data connectivity issue?"

No, not really. They just know their email isn't working properly and they can't get a file they need. They're still going to blame IT.

This is why you have to pick the issues that will have the most impact. And why these are not one-off sessions people will forget once they leave the classroom.

"If somebody explains SOA in a context of why it's useful, then it's worth it," said Orlov. "Greater understanding of IT for business people is directly a result of better communication from IT about what they're doing. And the more and better IT communication, the more likely IT is to be aligned with the strategy of the company."