The Pace of Change in the IT/Business Relationship

I’m currently reading The Technology Garden: Cultivating Sustainable IT-Business Alignment by the Neils from Macehiter Ward-Dutton along with Jon Collins and Dale Vile of Freeform Dynamics. In the spirit of full disclosure, the publicist sent me a free advance copy of the book, as Amazon reports its availability as June 11th. I’m about halfway through it, and it’s been a pleasant read. Chapters four and five have particularly caught my attention. They are titled, “Create a common language” and “Establish a peer relationship between business and IT.” The common language chapter puts the onus on IT to learn the language of the business. While they also state that no competent business executive should be technology-ignorant (my words, not theirs), the bulk of the burden is on the technology staff. In the next chapter, it begins with a discussion on how many IT groups play a supplier role, and how that simply isn’t good enough these days. While service delivery and management is very important for building trust, it’s not sufficient. They state:

Suppliers, by definition, do what they’re told. The customer is always right! The parameters of service delivery are defined by the ‘customer,’ and thereafter the supplier delivers, in response to requests, in the context of those parameters (you can think of these as ‘contracts’ and ‘service-level agreements’).

When I read this, it occurred to me that as an industry, we really haven’t made much progress on the whole concept of IT and business as peers. I’ve mentioned previously that in my early days, I did a lot of work on user interface technologies, and had a strong interest in human-computer interaction during college. My first introduction to user-centered design techniques and viewing the end user as a partner in the process was in the summer of 1993. That was 14 years ago, and yet I’d have to say that in general, IT still operates in a supplier role, with things thrown back and forth over the business/IT wall. I really liked the emphasis on communication in Chapter 4 of the book. If the continued prevalence of IT as a supplier mentality is due to a fundamental lack of trust, the only thing that will eventually break it down is communication. I’ve certainly been guilty of falling into the typical technologist mode of communicating: email. As they call out, it’s time to starting getting out of our chairs, out of our comfort zones, and start communicating. If you don’t know who to begin your conversations with, seek someone out that can help you with that.

I had the experience of participating in an exercise directed by a CIO where we were split into groups of 8 people, and then furthered subdivided into two groups of 4 seated at separate tables. Each table had a task to accomplish as outlined on a piece of paper. All tasks were identical, and each set of 8 people had identical equipment at their table to complete the task. The goal of the task was to ensure that each sub-group of 4 built identical solutions. If you’ve seen Apollo 13, this whole thing was prefaced by a video clip from the movie where the engineers at Mission Control dump a box full of stuff on the table and have to figure out a way to build a carbon dioxide scrubber out of it. They then have to get the Apollo 13 astronauts to do the same. The interesting thing about this task was that the instructions were not very limiting. For example, there was nothing that said one group of four couldn’t get up and go sit with the other four and complete the whole thing together. The point of the exercise was that we set many artificial boundaries in our work based on past experiences, culture, etc. In fact, there are probably more artificial boundaries than real boundaries. Does your company have a stated policy that you can’t go and talk to an end user on the business side? If they don’t, there’s nothing preventing you from doing that. If we’re going to begin building trust back up in the IT/Business relationship, it is time to step outside of the box and start communicating as peers. Let’s not wait another 14 years to start making a change.

One Response to “The Pace of Change in the IT/Business Relationship”

  • […] I previously posted some thoughts on the new book from the Neils at MacehiterWard-Dutton along with Jon Collins and Dale Vile from Freeform Dynamics called “The Technology Garden: Cultivating Sustainable IT-Business Alignment.” I finally got a chance to pick it up again, and I thoroughly recommend chapter 8, “Foster relationship with key IT suppliers” for anyone who has an involvement in vendor decisions. Working with vendors is an art, and it’s not just the department head who needs to do it. They give some practical guidance on how to determine who your strategic vendors are, and who the vendors are that you simply deal with on a transaction by transaction basis. In addition to this, they also give prescriptive guidance on working with them, and the art of the win-win solution. […]

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