Leadership

Bridging the chasm: How to prevent your IT organization from becoming a commodity

There is a chasm between the IT and the rest of the business in many organizations which occurs because of the lack of credibility of the IT function in the eyes of the rest of the business. What can you do about this?

If you've been around the IT profession for a while, you've read and heard a lot about whether IT is just a service function or a great business value generator and enabler. I have always wondered why such questions are asked in the first place, because I never see anyone mulling over the role of Marketing or Finance in the same way.

I'm convinced that the scrutiny is due to the chasm between the IT and the rest of the business in many organizations which occurs because of the lack of credibility of the IT function in the eyes of the rest of the business. Here is how you can spot it:

  • The CIO is not on par with the rest of the C-level executives, in terms of the business weight, presence, or the level of rapport
  • IT staff is lovingly, yet with a tinge of irony, referred to as if they descended from a movie screen: a "guru," a "wiz," or a "propeller head"
  • It's difficult to secure funding for IT projects, but smaller requests are often granted, seemingly just to satisfy the petitioner
  • IT projects often fail, and the business benefits of those that succeed, is unclear
  • The IT organization is rarely, if at all, consulted on business strategy; in worst cases, business strategy is not discussed with IT at all
  • IT staffers admit that after making a point in front of their "business" colleagues, they often feel that their argument was not fully understood or appreciated
  • When an IT executive or manager speaks at a meeting, the eyes of all present glaze over from the amount of technical detail, and when the oration is over, most are still unsure of the subject.

Oh, so what, you may say. If there's a gap, isn't it always like that, and what's the problem, anyway?

I wouldn't be writing this if this weren't a serious problem and much less would I be running a consulting practice that helps organizations rectify this condition. In my opinion, it's in the best interest of every organization and every executive to strive to eliminate the gap altogether, and here are the reasons why:

  • In many organizations, IT departments employ easily the best educated staff, compared to other functions. This mental firepower can and should be used more effectively.
  • No organization has limitless resources, and there's only a finite amount of change that can be absorbed. So, it's vitally important that unnecessary projects are never undertaken, no matter how small.
  • When IT is aligned with the rest of the business, IT works with the full understanding of the priorities of the organization as a whole, which invariably improves the fit of IT-originated projects with the business strategy.
  • Working cohesively with other functions, IT is no longer regarded as a not-too-well understood semi-alien life form, but is treated as an equal partner and a valuable contributor.

And so I say to all IT executives, managers, and professionals out there: Your IT organization will be what you want it to be. Do nothing about the gap, and there will always be questions about your value to the organization (which can go even further than mere questions, and I'll write about this next time). Erase the gap, and your value will never be questioned again (and watch your compensation go up, too).

So, how exactly would one go about this task? Here are the first three steps I suggest, that any IT organization, or even a single professional, can start applying immediately.

1. Develop core business skills. Learn to read financial statements, master common business terminology, and understand key roles of departments and functions within the organization. How do they fit together? Learn the basics of marketing and business strategy, and some common helpful frameworks, such as "value chain" or "Porter five." This is not at all difficult, but immensely useful. 2. Know the business environment. Learn as much as you can about the industry in which your company operates. Is it a good business to be in today or not? What are the key issues? What is likely to happen in the next few years? How is your company doing and why? What is its strategy? What reputation does it have in the industry and the marketplace? Who are its customers? What are the key business priorities today and what are they likely to be tomorrow? What are the key concerns and pressures at the executive level? 3. Learn to speak the language the rest of the business understands. Very few people outside of the IT organization care about technical parameters of a new router, but many would like to know how it would benefit the business. Adopt a style of thinking that's concerned with the business impact of a solution, and express yourself using appropriate terms. Why should they care? Why now? Engage in conversations with colleagues from other departments, show interest, and pick up the terms they like to use. You'll be amazed how much you can take away from these conversations. Learn to create well-structured business cases, both verbal and written, and master the skill of cost-benefit analysis. Speak to your staff about the business environment often, educate them and strive to answer questions they may have.

How hard can this be? It's not. Follow these pointers, develop trust and credibility with the rest of the business, eliminate the chasm, and enjoy the great results and recognition.

Bottom Line for IT Leaders

It's in the best interest of every organization and every executive to strive to eliminate the gap between IT and other departments.

Ilya Bogorad is the Principal of Bizvortex Consulting Group Inc, a management consulting company located in Toronto, Canada. Ilya can be reached at ibogorad@bizvortex.com or (905) 278 4753.

About

Ilya Bogorad is the Principal of Bizvortex Consulting Group Inc, a management consulting company located in Toronto, Canada. Ilya specializes in building better IT organizations.

16 comments
Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

to build a bridge if you work from both ends and meet in the middle. So do non-IT managers want the best out of their IT colleagues? Evidence to teh contrary is available. In the UK at least propeller head IT managers just don't exist in my experience. The biggest lack I see in the current management is their near total inability to interact effectively with their own people not with their peers. That leaves senior types like myself taking on the role of ambassador, but with no authority or responsibility. If anything I do it out of self defense, but when you can't even convince your own boss something is a good idea, how can you get it to the board? There have been times I've explained something so even the most non-technical person ever could understand it. I'm fairly sure they did. but I didn't know that the department was being slimmed down and investment postponed to make it a viable outsourcing prospect..... When the people at the top 'don't care' that spending X now will save you Y for the next Z years, because X has been allocated to the company private jet, or a really good marketing campaign for a highly polished turd, you need a lot more than a bridge. Presumably some IT managers will read this thread. Question, when does refactoring not make financial sense?

ibogorad
ibogorad

Tony, I was hoping someone would reply to your question, but no one has thus far, so it goes. Refactoring, and I take it as rewriting of code to improve readability, makes little economic sense with the exception of the following scenarios: 1) There is zero opportunity cost. That is, you have developers and testers on your payroll with absolutely nothing to do, and you can think of a piece of code that would use a clean up. Even then, I advise to think quite hard as to whether the risk new bugs is worth the trouble. Shouldn't have happen in the first place. 2) A piece of butchered and bandaided prototype code made it into the production system. Shouldn't have happened in the first place. 3) A module is a subject of constant revisions by many people, such as in tax preparation software. From the financial perspective, it makes sense to keep it as clean and as uniform as humanly possible. If you find doing refactoring on the same piece of code often, sorry, this shouldn't be happening. That's it. I don't care for instances where people push refactoring because "the corporate coding standards" were not followed etc. This is just a big waste of time and money, and something that is a lot of developers out there are guilty of. Ilya www.bizvortex.com ibogorad@bizvortex.com

Jaqui
Jaqui

it's Management's fault for pushing a short development time onto the developers. You want solid code, quadruple the time estimate, then quadruple them again. otherwise, expect bad code and a requirement for refactoring, because of POOR management decisions.

bill.folger
bill.folger

What a relevant topic. I'm a one-man-show for just over a hundred users in local government. There is never a lack of something to do and absolutely no way to continuously re-prioritize tasks and expect the departments to think your meeting their needs in a timely fashion. Which reflects poorly on my department. Upper management thinks that this is just a matter of time prioritization when it's actually a matter of depth. They have bluntly stated that additional staff will not be considered until there is improvement with meeting deadlines and communicating delays to the departments in a meaningful way that will allow them to understand they are important, and a priority. I was hired to save them money they were foolishly over spending on outside resources. But now they refuse to see that there is more to this than just dollars and time. Someone has to be hands on and know the systems on-site. Trying to give everyone a warm fuzzy is irresponsible and a waste of time. It needs to be understood that technology is the backbone and driver for all the services we provide.

WKL
WKL

This society has a bad habit of treating those with a penchant for science and technology as a bunch of undesirables. Especially among Authoritarians and their Followers (within the meaning set forth by Bob Altemeyer, Phd.) Technical Truth is our currency, after all, but speaking Truth to Power doesn't win you any friends among the Empowered Elite. Mainstream media and cinema frequently portray technical adepts as "oddballs", "freaks", "outsiders", socially dysfunctional, mentally disturbed or demented sociopaths. So much so that when people feel "inferior" to such workers (often as a result of technical professionals merely doing their job!), they often harbor resentment, sarcastically referring to them as "geniuses", "wizzes", "geeks", "nerds", "savants" and the like. No other profession is treated with such sarcasm and derision as IT (except, perhaps, for prostitution and even THAT has it's admirers among at least half the population). It is a well known long-standing issue that lawyer/politico-elitists harbor a decidedly hostile and vindictive attitude toward technical adepts. (Perhaps one of the more notorious examples being Y2K. It was the sincere intent of a great many members of that elite social caste to inflict as much harrassment, injury and persecution upon anyone having anything to do with computers as they could manage, expecting to collectively make at least one trillion dollars from it.) Lawyer-legislators in their chambers throughout the country continue to pass ever more laws that increasingly threaten and jeopardize workers in the information and communication technology fields. The vast disconnect between authoritarian types in all kinds of positions and the scientific/technical worker is all too well established, as well. Manipulative authoritarian control freaks routinely take every advantage of those who would rather embrace logical scientific truth and fact instead of lying, cheating, being hypocritical and generally screwing people over for the sake of money, political gain or religious dogma. In business, the exaggerated sense of entitlement and authority on the part of many managers leads them to believe that they have the right to DEMAND respect and control over others simply by virtue of their damned corporate title. (At least the military and law enforcement personnel are being brutally honest in a perverse sense when they coerce respect by holding a gun to your head.) In their delusion, they cannot accept that things like respect, trust, loyalty and admiration are earned through the experience of interacting with your fellow workers. To such sociopsychopaths, accustomed as they are in thinking that Reality is just what they decide it is, in their image and likeness and for their purpose, the very concept of objective scientific and technical truth and fact are quite alien and antithetical to their very nature. And, therefore, so are we.

skOtn
skOtn

Thank you, I printed out a copy of this and posted it in a frame on my desk.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

You are part of the group of mad scientists who are going to take over the world aren't you? Can I join? :D Some nuggets of truth in there, presentation is a little extreme though. One of the most interesting things about the entirely predictable backlash after Y2K, was a firm belief that the arcane wizards of 20th century tech hadn't explained well enough what was going to happen at the end of 99. I distinctly remember when making some fixes not to take the time fixing Cdates (rollover in 2015), because all this stuff will be gone by then.... The start of learning from your mistakes is first admitting you made one. This in corporate management 'thinking' is a bad career move, unless you are right at the top.

WKL
WKL

The Mad Scientist version is a much longer, more general diatribe and calls for a global strike of all technical workers. I know it seems extreme. But let me tell you about the time I was at an IT trade show here in Louisville in 1999. Present at that exhibition was one of the larger local law firms, complete with a booth and a presentation they gave every couple of hours. Curious as to why a law firm would actually take the trouble to exhibit at a technical trade gathering, I attended one of their presentations. Well, as you can guess by now, they were explaining just how they had the Y2K problem well in hand. It was the fervent hope of that elite group of barristers to file lawsuits right and left going after anyone having anything to do with computers just as soon as any computer problem arose that could be blamed on Y2K. That was the solution to Y2K, as far as those guys were concerned. In their world, the solution to ANY problem is litigation. (After all, when your only tool is a hammer, all problems resemble nails.) Their only problem, as it turned out, was that the government had placed certain limitations on how much lawyers could charge for litigating Y2K related issues. "We won't be able to charge more than $1000 per hour!" the esteemed esquire lamented. This was regardless of whether they represented the plaintiff or the defendant, or whether they won or lost, mind you. You see, it isn't a question of whether we are explaining things well enough to such people. You can't expect them to care about something that they hold in utter contempt to begin with, so they aren't interested in listening to explanations. This isn't our fault, Tony.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

the same simple points over and over to current winner of the local management musical chairs competition. While it might be comforting, it's statistically unlikely they were all as dumb as the hole in cow's arse. So once you figure that out, there has got to me something else going on. I simply don't believe it's a conspiracy, that would required far too much in the way of planning, thinking, co-operation and concerted action. Evidence suggests, of that, they are incapable. :p

svasani
svasani

This is especially true in a non core-IT firm. Having moved from a pure IT firm to a traditional service Industry, I observed that the human touch matters a lot. If the person you are trying to reach is just a few desks away, walk to him rather than sending an email. Other similar gestures include fixing an issue at the User's desk rather than firing up VNC, avoiding excessive IT jargon, talk of technology in relation to business, share with Users IT techniques to make whatever they are doing easy and efficient. You would be surpirsed how much they would like you for showing how to add color coding to differentiate outlook emails. Try to be human and you won't become a commodity.

WKL
WKL

"Try to be human and you won't become a commodity"? You mean in the same sense that African Americans weren't considered human and became commodities? Please read my post regarding Social Issues of Technical Workers. You know, I just realized something. All this faux-psychology warm-fuzzy people-person crap derives directly from the general social attitude toward technical adepts to begin with. It absolutely stinks and is as discriminatory as racism.

ryan.latham
ryan.latham

IT may be viewed as commodity because it is young compared to other service areas of a corporation such as marketing or accounting. Companies are currently experiencing the maturity of IT at various levels. I think the maturity of IT depends on age, size, and attitude of the company. Age because of long established processes, size usually equates to resources, and attitude usually lies on how well the IT shop is run. For example a long standing small company may be behind in the maturity cycle due to well established processes and lack of resources. But a similar shop may be farther along in the cycle because they are run effectively and have proven to the rest of the organization the cost benefit of technology. Case in point, I've recently changed the attitude at our company first with small project wins and eventually large organization changing projects. I just received approval for a large capital budget to rebuild our IT infrastructure. I also use to report to the CFO but was promoted to CTO last year. Bottom line is while it may be a long battle, IT needs to earn the respect to get a seat at the table.

reisen55
reisen55

American management has long considered that Information Technology support is just a buncha people doing nothing because everything is working. Systems integration with business planning, discussions with management about where technology can take them is ignored. A good IT shop appears to be doing nothing to their mindset because, hey - there are no problems are there!!! And that devalues the successful shop and it becomes a commodity. Oddly enough, if IT people are running a bad shop, and they are constantly putting out fires and problems, then they only appear to be busy people. That is a bad shop (and I have been in one of the worst of them) is ignored by management but very visible by staff. So, a good shop lends itself instantly to outsourcing. Cheaper, faster, better is the mantra, fire the overpaid American workers and hired H1-B and build a support staff center in Bangalore, move the help desk over there and get your computer support from individuals located either 3,000 miles away or some in-house staff with nill experience on customized applications or your business needs. Your outsourcing partner has ONE INTEREST and that is to maintain their contracted relationship with the client. Period. GONE is business integration, business needs. Welcome to the world of Service Level Agreements, endless metrics and an IT shop now under someone else's control. The outsourcing firm will do ANYTHING to keep that contract alive and well and that does not include the best interests of the client. It does include massive hourly billing. We can advertise ourselves to the sun, moon and the stars but American management does not hear us and continues to believe that Computer Sciences Corp, Affiliated Computer Systems, Accenture, EDS are the most effective venue to a good IT department. And then it all goes to hell.

mavpf
mavpf

I do agree that part of the IT functions became a commodity, but only the operational ones. The main aspects of all the changes that the IT department is going trough are the need of integration with the businesses. For many years, IT was the "black box" but now is over. IT must be integrated with the business and this aspect cannot be outsourced. The choice of an outsourcing supplier must be done by the IT department. Is it the IT end? No, because all the business knowledge will still with the IT department, only the operational tasks will be moved. The IT department is now responsible for translating all the gauges and numbers into business language, doesn?t matter if it still with the operational tasks. How? Integrating business process with IT, understanding the business needs, what SLA?s must be achieved and looking for what the business wants to hear and see, what matters when we are talking about decision making. Instead of throwing tons of good information that became meaningless to the business, IT needs to show what is important to the managers, directors and/or board, in a way that they do understand.

Komplex
Komplex

This is a result of the silo-ization and specialization of IT departments over the last 10 years. Before you had a handful of IT professionals supporting one department, meeting with the users on a daily basis and understanding their business. Your average IT professional would know a little bit of everything express it to the end users. Now everybody is a specialist and so beholden to industry standards there little difference between a switch, server, vpn at company A, and a switch, server, vpn at company B. In addition, the current management fad is to focus on a companies core competencies. Advertising and Manufacturing have been outsourced for years, same with cleaning services, building maintenance and even the administrative assistants. How is the vast majority of IT services any different?

efranko
efranko

Although I do agree with outsourcing the IT department for most businesses I do not agree with moving the servcie to Bangalore or another country that canoot clearly speak the language. It takes twice as long to resolve a problem due to the unclear speech of the employees. What does that save a company?

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