Cease fire! End the war between business and IT

Working with the business requires an understanding of business culture -- without turning your back on your IT roots

For today's businesses, information technology is integrated into the enterprise and not just bolted on, meaning IT organizations have to be integrated into the enterprise as well.

This seemingly simple idea can't be achieved without a healthy relationship between IT and the rest of the business, which begins with establishing an appropriate relationship model and ensuring positive interactions between every IT employee and everyone else in the company.

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For many companies, those interactions can often be anything but healthy. The question is why: Is it a clash of personality types, a clash of cultures, or both?

The mathematics of personality conflict, part two
Last week's analysis
concluded that culture clash was the more important factor, but it depended on some back-of-the-envelope calculations. It also suggested that only half of all interactions between IT and business staff are between IT "geeks" and business "non-geeks," but that just about all of the interactions were between IT-geek culture and non-IT/non-geek culture. Culture, far more than personality friction, is the most likely explanation of why relations between IT and the rest of the business are so often dysfunctional.

We can now throw out the envelope. Gang-of-16 member Heather Gollnow tracked down some research that provides actual numbers: "Personality types in software engineering," International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, Volume 58 Issue 2, by Luiz Fernando Capretz, 2/2003, and based on the well-known Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI).

It turns out that last week's estimate wasn't too far off. According to Capretz's research, which compared a sample of 100 software engineers to standard published numbers for the population as a whole, almost exactly two thirds of all IT professionals conform to MBTI personality types appropriate to IT careers, while the same proportion of non-IT staff conform to non-IT personality types.

Which means that about 45 percent of all interactions between IT and business staff are between IT geeks and non-IT non-geeks -- a bit less than my estimate last week, but close enough that the conclusion doesn't change.

So again, when seeking to establish productive business/IT relations, the focus should be on culture, not personality.

Dealing with culture clashes
Now that we've identified the problem, "all" we have to do to mitigate the effects of culture clash between business and IT is to solve everything that causes it: Conflicting specialized vocabularies, hidden assumptions, patterns of thinking, expectations of how people are supposed to react to typical situations, and especially the us-vs.-them tribalism.

Of course, this challenge exists at all levels of management both inside and outside IT.

Start with the CIO. Think back to an article that first appeared sometime in the 1980s and has since been re-published over and over again under different bylines and with only minor changes to the text, titled, "CIOs need to know about the business." Of course they do. And a critical part of understanding the business is understanding the business culture.

It's a tightrope CIOs must walk every day. Fail to understand the business culture and they'll experience the same dysfunctional conflict IT staff experience when communicating with business staff. But understand it too well and the CIOs become part of it, leaving the IT culture behind. Now, their dysfunctional communication will be with the IT staff instead.

The solution isn't to become a member of the other cultures -- to "go native." That just trades one dysfunction for another. Far better is to make sure everyone in IT learns just enough anthropology to get by.

Cultural relativism in the business environment
Start with the principle of cultural relativism -- the principle that within their own contexts, all cultures are equally valid.

In the 21st century, the principle of cultural relativism is tricky because it's only one short step away from intellectual relativism, which has no place in the world -- or shouldn't. Intellectual relativism is the contention that all propositions are equally valid so long as you find them indirectly on the Internet through a link from someone else. (For example, "The Apollo landings were faked" is thus a valid proposition because a blog you visit says, "According to noted expert Irving Slobodnik, the Apollo landings were faked," with a link to Slobodnik's blog.)

Cultural relativism, in contrast, holds that the hidden assumptions, specialized vocabularies, and patterns of thinking and response that make up a culture are adaptive -- they make sense in the context within which they evolved. Cultures are what they are for a reason, which is that they help their members get through the day.

When anyone in IT interacts with any employee in any other part of the organization and it turns out they don't think and speak about the world the same way IT does, that doesn't make them wrong. Or right. It makes them different, which means these conversations are opportunities for IT employees to broaden their horizons. If IT staff learn to ask instead of tell, the results will be transformational. Take this question, for example: "The way you're approaching this is quite different from how we do things in IT. Can you explain it to me?"

Learn their vocabulary
Do you get as annoyed as I do when someone complains about IT jargon? Of course we have jargon. And the usual complaint about it -- that it's a secret code we've invented to close ourselves off and sound more important -- is a perfect example of us-vs.-them tribalism, only with us on the receiving end.

The complaint is ridiculous, because our only alternative is inefficient communication.

Take, for example, the question, "Are those data structures normalized?" For two IT professionals, using "normalized" saves at least 500 words of tedious explication.

Every culture in your company has its own specialized vocabulary, just as impenetrable to us as "normalization" is to them. Fortunately, the solution is simplicity itself. All you have to do is to ask what strange words mean -- and familiar words that sound out of place, too.

Imagine that the word in question is "axolotl." If you really want to emulate anthropologists, you can ask a couple of additional questions, beyond the definitions. Here are three that can be quite useful. One, "Are there different kinds of axolotl?" Two, "What are axolotls composed of?" And three, "What attributes do you use to describe axolotls?"

Respecting differences
MoT stands for "Member of Tribe." Outside the business world, most people have learned this rule, sometimes the hard way. It means that if you're Polish you're allowed to tell Polish jokes and use the ethnic pejorative for Poles. If you're Irish, you aren't, but for you Irish jokes are in-bounds.

Inside the world of business, the same rule applies to anyone who wants to avoid a poisonous clash of cultures. Accountants get to call each other "bean counters." We don't. We get to call each other "propeller heads" (or, for that matter, "geeks"). Accountants don't.

Right about now is when folks start to complain about political correctness, but really, when it comes to establishing a production relationship with colleagues, it's just plain common sense.

This story, "ECease fire! End the war between business and IT," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Bob Lewis's Advice Line blog on InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.