Trust is fundamental to alignment

Why can't IT and the business side get along? A lack of communication and trust are among the main reasons, according to one expert.


Although there is much talk about the need to align business and IT departments, little progress has been made.

Part of the problem is systemic to IT departments and technical people, but another part involves the willingness of business executives and managers to engage with IT constructively on a long-term basis.

On one side, the business is terrified about ceding control over the design, architecture and budget of its pet project to a central IT group, which it views as slow, incompetent and uncompromising. The business cites numerous examples of IT ineptitude to reinforce its notions that the IT department will suck the life blood out of the project and cause it to die a slow, inexorable death.

Of course, the IT group sees the business as a spoiled child who is too impatient and short-sighted to wait for IT to lay the necessary foundation to ensure the long-term success of its own system. IT is also bitter that the business expects it to deliver an ever-increasing number of "high-priority" projects in shorter and shorter time frames while dealing with reduced costs, shrinking staff and the constant threat of outsourcing and offshoring.

A perfect example is one IT director who recently lamented, "We work hard to meet the needs of our business customers, but they are constantly adding and changing requirements, and they do not have the discipline to adhere to their own priorities. This makes it difficult for us to plan and impossible to succeed. It's a no-win situation."

The result is a tense standoff in which each group fulfills the other's worst perceptions of each other. If the business has the upper hand, it will maintain control of the technical aspects of the project, creating another nonintegrated system that will be costly to maintain in the long run. If IT gains control, it will halt development of new end-user functionality until it brings the infrastructure into conformance with its architectural standards and nothing of value will get accomplished.

So what can be done to slice through this Gordian knot? What will it take for both sides to enter into a relationship of mutual respect? Like a marriage on the rocks, business and IT need some serious counseling before they can work together effectively. They need to take several baby steps that improve communication and overcome mutual distrust by helping each side better understand the other's challenges and dilemmas.

Counseling for IT

During the past 10 years, IT has come to recognize that its job is not to deliver technology for technology's sake but to provide exquisite service to its customer -- the business. Like an alcoholic who publicly admits the problem, this is a step in the right direction. However, this is only the first step. Verbal acknowledgment alone does not translate into remedial action.

What better way to align with the business than to eat, sleep and breathe like a business person? Unfortunately, the IT department -- by virtue of its being a separate organization within the company -- often functions as a subculture that operates by its own rules. IT groups have their own jargon, incentives, reporting structure and career paths, which are different from those of the business that it serves.

Counseling for the business

Although IT groups generally get the lion's share of the blame for misalignment between business and IT, it takes two to tango, as they say. The business shares equal blame for the frustration that it feels toward IT -- perhaps more so, because it does not always recognize how its actions and behavior contribute to the problem.

The business needs to understand that it changes too fast for IT to keep up. It harbors a short-term bias toward action and rarely takes a long-term view toward building sustainable value. This is especially true in U.S. companies, whose Wild West heritage makes them notorious for acting first and asking questions later. Management needs to slow down sometimes and ask whether change is really needed or if it is reacting in knee-jerk fashion to the latest event or issue of the day.

Finally, management has the upper hand in its relationship with IT and often rules in a high-handed and capricious manner. In many organizations, executives threaten to outsource or offshore IT when it does not deliver sufficient value, rejecting the possibility that their own actions and decisions may have crippled IT's ability to function effectively.

Taking the first step

Although it is not the sole source of the stalemate, the IT department needs to take the first step toward reconciliation. IT needs to show that it wants to be an equal partner in the business, not an auxiliary that is more interested in technology than the bottom line. It can do this by becoming more responsive to business needs, by improving the way it gathers business requirements, by adopting rapid development techniques and by creating and selling a portfolio of analytical applications.

In addition, some organizations are creating an information management group that sits between the IT department and the business and is responsible for the timely delivery of information, reports and analytics to users. These information management groups are already proving successful in bridging the yawning gulf between business and IT by creating an intermediary organization designed to be more responsive to business needs and requirements.

Wayne W. Eckerson is the director of research and services at The Data Warehousing Institute, a worldwide association of business intelligence and data warehousing professionals that provides education, training, certification and research. He is also the author of Performance Dashboards: Measuring, Monitoring and Managing Your Business. He can be reached at weckerson@tdwi.org.

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