Fixing the relationship between business and IT

The first step to a successful business/IT relationship is understanding what a business/IT relationship means

Get the business/IT relationship right and you'll get IT right. Right?

Wrong. It's a necessary condition, not a sufficient one: Get the relationship between business and IT wrong and your chances of anything else going well is minimal. Get it right and you still have a lot more to do. But at least you'll have a chance.

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Which leads to a simple question, but the answer isn't simple at all: What does "business/IT relationship" mean? The answer is compound and multidimensional. Getting it right includes laying out the right relationship model, establishing trust at all levels, reading the interpersonals right, and dealing with the delivery feedback loop, which can be either a vicious or virtuous cycle.

This week's subject is getting the right relationship model in place, the starting point for any effective business/IT relationship. We'll delve into the other aspects of the business/IT relationship in future missives.

Business/IT model No. 1: Priests and supplicants

Back when mainframes ruled IT and your loyal author had fully functional follicles, the relationship was between us -- the high priests of the glass house -- and our supplicants throughout the rest of the business. We, the anointed, were privy to the arcana. They, the dumb users, came to us with requests, which we in our profound wisdom either chose to satisfy or rejected as not worthy of our efforts.

I miss those days.

Business/IT model No. 2: Suppliers and customers

Somewhere along the way, business theorists decided the high priests/supplicant model was unhealthy  and should be replaced by something more benign. Thus was born the "internal customer." Horrifyingly, instead of them begging us for crumbs, we were now entreated to make sure they were satisfied with the service we, as an internal supplier, provided them (unless they read Tom Peters; if they did we were supposed to delight them).

The business as a whole was supposed to work much better this way -- as a "value chain" in which each component adds value to raw materials as they are transformed into finished products. It was enough to make your average economist swoon in admiration.

It was also a classic case of taking a bad situation and finding an ingenious way to make it much, much worse, because (as one reason among many) while we were now supposed to satisfy our internal customers, we never had enough budget to do so.

The problem we were trying to solve was resentment of our arrogance. The "solution" replaced arrogance with dysfunction. It didn't work because it couldn't work, but instead of giving it up in favor of something that could, the business punditocracy wasted decades developing an ever-more-elaborate set of governance mechanisms that were meant to solve it all. Instead, witness their main impacts:

  • Add quite a lot of overhead in the form of IT steering committee meetings.
  • Annoy everyone involved in the proceedings because no matter what the official governance policies, decisions ended up driven by politics more than business cases.
  • Encourage businesses to outsource IT, because once IT had established itself as an independent supplier, why wouldn't businesses consider other suppliers as well, especially when the one they had was so annoying? (See previous bullet.)
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