Talk to Me: The Disconnect Between Business and IT

By Sourabh Hajela

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The disconnect between business and IT is often lamented. A lot is spoken and written about this chasm. Ostensibly, a lot is done to bridge it. Yet, most would agree the chasm still exists.

Conventional wisdom says the root cause of this problem is business and IT do not understand each other. Business does not understand what IT can do and IT does not get what the business wants done.

Granted, there is truth to this argument. However, I have yet to come across a business person who does not think IT can do wonders for their business. Similarly, I have not met an IT leader who does not think understanding the business is important to them.

With this keen desire, why are the two sides unable to understand each other? I believe the problem lies elsewhere. It is in the respective perceptions of the two sides on what “understanding” is and how to foster it.

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The very fact we speak of “business” and “IT” as separate entities is a glaring symptom of the lack of understanding of the fundamentals—on both sides.

The '80s brought about the dominance of the Japanese in manufacturing. We learned a key lesson from the Japanese manufacturing success: Manufacturing is a team sport.

It turns out not just manufacturing, but business is a team sport, too.

Business and IT are part of the same team. The former is the demand side of business. The latter is the supply or delivery side of the business. Together, they go to market and are either successful or fail. The fact remains it is the team, not its parts, that succeeds or fails.

The interaction between the members of the business team is not sequential. Business comes up with strategy. IT comes up with the solution once it is handed a business strategy. I disagree.

Members of the business team work together to create a strategy and stay together through execution. Because strategy is never “done” and execution lessons drive strategic “adjustments." Strategy and execution are part of the same process. They happen in multiple “learn-and-do” cycles.

In this context, we must stop talking about business and IT “alignment” and start thinking about business and IT “fusion."

Language. Successful teams communicate well. Often, business and IT speak different languages. It is assumed the other side understands. Worse, there is chauvinism on both sides and an assumption the other should make an effort to learn their language.

To be successful, business and IT must talk the same language. I am not referring just to the vernacular. I am referring to everything that surrounds good communications. Good communications are timely. Good communications are two way: one must speak but one must listen. Good communications are less about speaking and more about understanding. Trust. Successful teams trust each other. Language is important. It is the foundation for good communications. However, it is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for the success of the team.

Trust is the critical element for team sport. Because what you do not trust, you do not understand.

Do business and IT trust each other? Can they take each other on their word?

Business makes commitments without IT’s participation. Sometimes, these commitments change on a dime. Sometimes, IT is the scapegoat for commitments that have not been thought through and destined for failure from the get-go.

IT also shares the blame when it comes to lack of trust. They also make commitments they know they cannot keep. Either in the heat of the moment or to “wait and let the storm pass,” IT knowingly makes unrealistic project-spend or delivery commitments. One can only play this card so often. Eventually, this catches up with the IT organization.

Does the IT organization have the courage to speak the truth? Can the business handle the truth?

The good news is that over time trust solves this problem. However, in the short term both members of the team have to take the first step.

Transparency. Successful teams are transparent in all aspects of their interaction. Because what you do not know, you do not trust.

Most business people will tell you they do not react negatively to projects being late or over budget. They react negatively to the communications about delays or overspend being late. They react negatively to “cover ups."

Business has its share of the blame. They are active at project inception and absent from that point on. The reason they do not “know” is because they are not there and it is difficult to communicate with absentees.

It is also difficult to summarize complex issues that have developed over weeks or months in a five-minute conversation. To make sure you understand, be there till it’s done.

IT, for its part, must be transparent in all aspects of its operations. Take the “wrapping of project issues in technology mumbo jumbo” card out of your playbook. It has been overplayed.

Everything is important but there are three things the business must participate in for transparency to take place:

  • Development and timely reporting on budgets.
  • Execution of key projects.
  • Hiring of key personnel.
  • Transparency—not communications—is the single most important responsibility of a CIO. Those who miss this simple fact do so at their own peril.

    Time for a Change

    Successful teams treat each other as equals. The perception of being “second-class,” often, motivates second-class performance. For the longest time, IT was not at the table. Now, it is ... sort of.

    Business has to acknowledge IT as an equal partner in all respects. This has to go beyond lip-service. CIOs have made it to the board in some instances. However, is this a begrudging acknowledgement of the inevitable or a genuine acceptance of a worthy partner?

    Say what you may about IT, one thing is for sure: IT folks are intelligent and perceptive. Being left out of key decisions or being present and not acknowledged are clear signs of disrespect. A long history of neglect doesn’t need much to trigger a sense of “not being equal.”

    IT must get over its inferiority complex. Equal partners do not wait for others to acknowledge or grant them their status. They act and behave as equals. So when referring to your business counterparts please replace “customer” with “partner” in your vocabulary.

    IT also must do everything to prove worthy of this respect. Because what you have won after years of hard work can be lost in a matter of one failed project.

    It is not acceptable just to know this chasm exists or to claim that action is being taken to bridge it. There must be a concerted effort to actually make it happen.

    Sourabh Hajela is a management consultant and trainer with over 20 years of experience creating shareholder value for his Fortune 50 clients. His consulting practice is focused on IT strategy, alignment and ROI. For more information, please visit www.StartSmartS.com. Or feel free to contact Sourabh at Sourabh.Hajela@StartSmartS.com.