Bridging the Business-IT Gap: Can you avoid the toll?

How many times have you heard this from IT; “… if the business would just tell us what their REAL requirements are, we could deliver systems that support their goals”, or this; “If IT would just listen to our requirements, they could deliver a system that finally gives us what we want”. What is the big problem between these two organizations and why can’t they get it together? IT departments need to think like a service organization; and business users need to understand their role in getting quality service.

It’s been a challenge since the dawn of computing; computers are processors that execute instructions based on binary code. Every IT professional knows that. But every business person sees “IT” differently. They see iMacs and iPhones. They see programs that allow them to communicate. They see computing technology making their homes more efficient, but the technology that makes their lives easier doesn’t always translate to the workplace because of a significant gap in communication between IT and business users. For example, when my iPhone doesn’t work, I call our IT team and the first question they ask me is “what’s wrong with it?”, Then I, of course, respond back “it doesn’t work”. Two different points of view.

Think about it; consumer electronics companies spend billions of dollars in researching consumer needs, identifying spending patterns, likes and dislikes, etc. By the time a product goes to market, there is a general sense of where the product will fit. Some firms, like Apple, do an exceptional job of filling gaps by focusing on new problems and delivering solutions vs. copying existing technologies.

IT organizations, the producers of “product” do not spend enough time understanding the needs of their users. Some organizations we see “cross-breed” high potential managers to help translate, but in general, communications are challenging. I should know- in 1993 I took a job in a major bank as a “Technology Relationship Manager” to help translate the needs of the business to IT and vice versa. What a shock; the IT team complained constantly about how the users didn’t know what they needed and the users constantly challenged the IT team to “come out of the data center” and see what the real world was like. Over time, we improved communication by focusing on a few simple themes:

  1. Put things in the language of the person on the receiving end. By grouping 117 different IT services into 4 digestible categories and pricing per user, we were able to eliminate the hassle of micro-level chargeback arguments.
  2. Understand the pain, not the symptom. At one point, the head of trading threw his trader phone (a very large device) because we didn’t understand that traders needed a tactile phone so they could dial without looking at it – we delivered a digital phone with LED readouts – fewer moving parts so for IT, less broken phones to deal with.
  3. Utilize a common language that both parties can understand. Remember that when the French and the Italians want to communicate, they speak English.
  4. Maintain a constant flow of communications and checkpoints. This is good advice for any relationship, but business users are very wary of what happens in the IT “back room”. Invite them in and show them around your world.
  5. Focus on pragmatic business-value-based deliverables. If you can show the other party how your work will benefit them, they will hold you in high regard.

Sadly, the group was eventually disbanded because IT thought we were getting “too close” to the business, but we did have an impact. The business understood the value they were receiving because we presented IT as services the end-users were “buying”- and that gave us a forum for discussing value and how to improve our service.

Sometimes technology organizations amass too much power because technology can be seen as a “black art”. Just like consumer technology, the time has come for the user to play an active part in getting good service. Remember, at the end of the day, it’s not how many “tolls” you avoid but how quickly you can reach your destination – safely.

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