IT and business remain apart -- and that's a good thing

The irony is that some of that divide is healthy, but few companies can tell the good from the bad

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The consumerization movement ended the era of the IT department as the be-all, end-all of technology. As technology becomes a core part of how we work and what we deliver, the notion of the IT department as the sole tech group stopped making sense. IT folks call this "shadow IT," as if it were a bad thing, but the truth is that IT people are often the ones living in the shadows, oblivious to what's going on in the wider world.

In truth, IT is really several departments: support, operations, design and development, integration and architecture, and assessment and purchasing. IT should be decomposed along such lines. Maybe they report to a CIO in the kind of dotted-line relationship that sales, marketing, and manufacturing typically report to the CFO, to ensure overall alignment. How you federate the technology efforts across your company is partially a matter of your industry and culture, but it is -- or should be -- a federation.

The relative balance in that federation is likely not right in your company, though. "Now that technology is no longer just about the back office of processing transactions, the real challenge is to pivot around revenue generation, not just about how to keep the lights on," says Mark Peacock, the IT Transformation practice leader at Hackett Group. When I go to CIO conferences, "keeping the lights on" dicussions still unfortunately dominate, a sign that IT is an operational group, not a strategic one. That's fine as long as you admit it -- and allow someone else to be strategic.

In smarter companies, the Hackett Group sees a split between the "run" crew -- app maintenance and infrastructure -- and the technology-expoitation staff. Peacock says the "run" crew is composed of "basically plant managers." For exploiting technology for new, often new-revenue-oriented purposes, Hackett sees companies having a separate build organization that is project-oriented.

But most companies still seek what Peacock calls a "unicorn" -- a magical CIO who can make all facets of IT work perfectly, both operationally and strategically, both to support everything that now exists and anticipate and exploit all new technologies so that no one has to think about what might be missing or could be improved. That magical thinking is where businesses create some of the IT/business divide they so dislike.

If you can separate the various aspects of IT, you can then understand which of the divides are healthy and which are not. My guess is that when most businesspeople complain about the IT/business divide, they mostly mean the technology support group and the (often nonexistent) technology development group.

The support staff is an easy target, especially in companies where IT tends to live in the shadows and doesn't interact with users -- you know, the kind of shop that assumes no trouble tickets means everything is fine. No, as any parent of a small child can tell you, silence means something bad is probably happening. In the case of support, it means employees went off on their own to find and use solutions that work for them. That's actually a healthy response, and a smart company will take advantage of it by creating a framework that allows safe use of idiosyncratic technology choices.

The lack of (apparent) technology exploitation may be exacerbated by an operationally focused IT department, but it's a sign that no single organization can handle all technology. A good example of such a nonstrategic IT department is one still obsessing over the BYOD notion. Peacock does note that many CIOs were forced to lay off their strategic IT staff during the 2008-2012 recession, so that operational focus may not be in fact by the CIO's fault.

Which brings me back to the notion that IT should be thought of as a federation of roles, but more than as simply a federation of technology departments. The federation must include business units that buy, manage, and even create their own technologies -- marketing, for example -- as well as individual users who tend to explore new tech, such as those who adopted the iPad years before IT would admit its existence, who relied on Amazon Web Services to spin up test bed environments, and who adopted consumer technologies like Dropbox and Google Calendar to more easily collaborate with each other and outsiders.

It's a rare IT organization that does this kind of proactive, out-of-the-box technology exploration. If you have one, savor it. If you don't, stop expecting IT to act that way. If it's not doing that now, it's clearly not culturally able to do so. Let some other group do it instead, and let your IT department do whatever it is actually good at.

At the end of the day, you want groups -- whatever they're called -- doing what they're good at and staying out of the way of others. This is where you can narrow the IT/business divide, by reforming it as a federation of groups, not as duopoly that focuses on the wall between it. If you do that, you'll be left with the IT/business divide you do want: one based on aspirations that are always pulling you forward.

This article, "IT and business remain apart -- and that's a good thing," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Galen Gruman's Smart User blog. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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