The trouble with business executives…
IT-business misalignment woes
When IT teams and their colleagues within the business get along, life is good for everyone.
When things work well, a virtuous circle is created in which managers and executives recognise and appreciate the good service they receive, so are happy to fund further investments to allow IT to deliver even better, which in turn makes stakeholders happier still – and so the positive cycle continues. We saw evidence of this phenomenon in a recent research study in which we asked 170 Reg readers about the interplay between the worlds of business and IT.
What was also clear, however, was that some are quite a way off creating a nirvana of harmony and mutual respect. We got some pretty good insights into why this is from responses to an open question in which we asked: “What would you say are the biggest disjoints between IT and the business when it comes to acknowledging and responding effectively to external trends, pressures and imperatives?”
If you recognise any of the issues we are about to go through, or see them starting to develop in your organisation, it might be time to take action to avoid or break out of the opposite of the phenomenon mentioned above – namely, a vicious circle in which things spiral ever downwards.
So, turning to what we learned, let’s start with something fundamental that was mentioned quite a few times. Some IT departments clearly get very little "air cover" from senior managers; indeed, executive disinterest, with priorities and attention lying elsewhere, sometimes actively works against IT:
“Management still don’t get IT; they lease big expensive cars while the IT infrastructure gets older.”
“Legacy management sees IT as a necessary cost rather than a business service.”
A common frustration that we can already see emerging is a lack of funding and resources. We don’t have anywhere near enough space to list all of the feedback we received on this, but here are a couple of examples to illustrate the strength of feeling that sometimes exists:
“Management cares about quarterly stock price. Everyone else just tries to get the job done in spite of them with the pittance of resources and support management lets trickle out of the coffers.”
“Business management is only (ONLY) interested in cutting costs, there is no thinking beyond the next quarter, because their bonuses depend on it. They are a pack of….”
We had to cut that last comment short as what followed was unprintable. But despite being painfully squeezed, at least one IT pro managed to preserve their sense of humour:
“OMG MONEY WE NEED MONEY, WHERE IS THE MONEY?!?”
The reality, of course, is that an excessive focus on cost has consequences, not least starving those within the business of the benefits that stem from better IT capability:
“The driver is always to reduce cost. We never look at the possibilities of enhanced functionality, unless it can be phrased in terms of reduced costs.”
“The business has no knowledge of external trends or initiatives in software design, they are merely content to squeeze every drop out of aging 90's style applications.”
Some also highlighted the risks of cost cutting in areas such as security, business continuity, and so on, but for now let’s stick with the theme of enabling the business to deal with the pressures and trends arising from an increasing fast-moving and uncertain business climate.
On this, some senior management teams seem to have recently woken up to the realisation that technology really is now critical to compete given the way markets are becoming more competitive and digitally-enabled. But it’s not easy to recover when IT has been under-funded and under-resourced for so long:
“Years of underinvestment cannot be recovered with a swift splurge. Systems do not talk to each other. But now we rush to integrate everything all at once and the IT department is in melt-down.”
“What do you do when projects are sat on for months and then released all in one go?”
And still some struggle with the fundamental notion that at least some level of investment is typically required to create a modern technology-enabled business environment:
“The board will not spend on IT, but expect it to transform the business.”
So if they want better systems, but aren’t willing to invest, what do executives who think like this regard as the answer? You guessed it…
“Senior management believe cloud will save us all.”
“Bloody 'cloud', everything as a service...”
“They want to leap to ‘the cloud’, considering it as cheap.”
“The board dictate that we move to the cloud, being completely unable to explain why.”
That last comment alludes to a more general problem associated with business managers becoming more tech-aware and opinionated, but not acknowledging that they don’t know what they don’t know.
“The problem is 'civilians' who think they understand technology when they don't”.
“Everyone thinks that because they can get their iPad to talk to their Sky box, their opinion on IT infrastructure is somehow relevant. The complete incomprehension by management/users of the intricacies of delivering and maintaining a robust and secure infrastructure leads to endless wasted hours arguing.”
Related to this, expectation management is clearly a frequent challenge:
“The 'Hollywood' portrayal of IT is that a few keystrokes can solve anything. This has led to an unrealistic expectation on technology and timescales.”
“Unrealistic delivery times due to underappreciation of effort required and dynamic complexity of the existing systems.”
“Not involving IT in projects, decisions etc until the last minute when critical decisions have already been made.”
“Inability and disinterest from business to understand how IT enables and underpins the entire business today. This results in IT being involved only very late in the business process and the search for a silver bullet.”
And then the sales person comes in, offering that silver bullet directly to business execs, making it all sound so easy…
“One manager misunderstood what the sales person was talking about when selling them a cloud service. After the solution was implemented they asked why it was slower to access than other systems. I said because the data is not held on premises but outsourced somewhere else over the internet. They didn't know.”
With this in mind, one respondent offered this piece of advice:
“Don't ever let senior management talk to an IT sales person!”
But the reality is that technology and related services are now so accessible to those within the business that it’s hard to prevent people going off and doing their own thing, even if it often leads to tears:
“Shadow IT procurements are nothing to do with IT at all, until they fall over!”
A related risk is that despite the increasing reliance of business on technology, executives stop thinking of IT as an essential internal competence, and the organisation ends up at the mercy of third parties.
“The business has put real pressure to deliver IT functions from 'low-cost' offshore locations, yet the charge rate has actually gone up, while at the same time all service measures and KPI's point to a lower quality of service.”
“Business management pours close to 100% of our IT budget into consultants and third-party off-the-shelf solutions and services, so we have nearly no 'tribal knowledge.'”
Enough doom and gloom; what’s the answer? Well if you are sitting there working in an IT team that’s constantly stressed and frustrated, maybe it’s time to get more proactive and assertive.
“Business usually comes up with the ideas, and IT has to adapt or implement the solution, whereas I think IT should more often be the driving force behind the ideas.”
Easier said than done, of course, and changing the dynamic between IT and the business is not something you are likely to pull off overnight.
In the meantime, though, it makes sense to work on IT’s ‘readiness’ to deal with the increasingly unpredictable demands that will inevitably be placed on it as a result of macro level trends, events and uncertainty.
“Fundamentally IT is only not playing 'catch up' because of foresight by the IT team itself.”
Whether this translates to increased automation, modern continuous delivery methods, or making intelligent, selective use of cloud services to free up time and resources, there is a lot that can be done without asking permission or having to go cap in hand to business stakeholders. As a simple example, there are all sorts of open source tools available, backed up by great ideas and support from very lively communities. Prove the concept (and worth) through community-supported software, and it’s much easier to make the case for more formally supported enterprise-class solutions down the line.
So, what does it feel like when you get it right? Probably a bit like this:
“Actually, in my current employer there is not much disjoint. Most of our production is highly automated and the management understands that it needs to work with us and develop IT capability to keep a competitive edge. IT people mostly understand that the production and its effectiveness should be the main goal. Of course, there are conflicts and different opinions all the time, but the general feel is that all the parties are trying to work together to improve things.”
If you want to see more from the research study that yielded the comments we have listed in this article, please see our short report entitled: “Technology as a catalyst for cultural change”, which can be downloaded from here.