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

Business unit leaders claim IT organizations don't understand business needs, don't know how to deliver technology that helps the business fast enough or smart enough, and generally live in their own little world more akin to an Amish village than a modern city. So say two studies, one from the Hackett Group and one from McKinsey, both organizations that specialize in understanding business execs' views of technology.

We've been hearing about this business/IT divide for more than a decade once the Y2K, e-commerce, and ERP "hero IT" honeymoons wore off in the learly 2000s. It's clear that nothing has changed: IT still doesn't get it, and businesspeople are still frustrated. All those efforts at IT/business alignment, at embedding IT in the business, hiring businesspeople instead of technology experts to run IT, and all the other techniques preaches by consultants and pundits seem to have had zero effect. We've wasted all that time and effort.

Perhaps, then, it's time to blow the whole thing up because it can't be fixed and get rid of the notion of centralized IT altogether.

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The truth is that blowing up IT is as silly as trying to keep IT fully centralized. Part of the IT/business divide is healthy and will persist no matter what your organizational strategy for the CIO and the IT department. What is needed is a serious rethink of that strategy, one that gets past all the territorial defenses you have in place to perpetuate the status quo. You want to close the unhealthy IT/business divide but keep the healthy IT/business divide.

The healthy IT/business divide exists no matter how you manage IT
Part of the divide between business units and IT is a natural and healthy phenomenon, says Erik Dorr, a senior research director at Hackett Group. "There's more technology and invocation going on than any organization or group of individuals can absorb. That creates the platform for disappointment." In other words, we all see things we want and can even, thanks to the consumerization of technology, do on our own, without IT. But we also ignore what we can't figure out.

This set of realities leads to everyone having a different set of needs and priorities. As a company tries to reconcile that with its business strategy (a similarly fractured set of goals and capabilities), the divide between aspiration and reality becomes apparent. IT is often blamed because its job is to do the technology. Once it starts functioning, we simply assume its existence and look for the next need or desire to fulfill. Any credit IT earned is quickly forgotten, and we know only what's wrong.

If there were no tension between aspiration and reality, it would mean the company lacks ambition and is satisfied with the status quo. That usually leads to a company's demise.

The trick is to understand when the IT/business divide is based on the never-ending desire for more, with the uneven pace of being able to satisfy the desires that matter and learning to let go of those that don't affect the organization, even if they impact us as individuals. "There's a natural limitation to how much technology-based change and innovation that individuals can absorb," Dorr says. "There's no amount of talent management can accelerate that to the point where orgs and people change as fast as the underlying technology, so there will always be a frustration."

That's healthy frustration, a sign that the company's employees are yearning to do better. If the IT/business gap stays relatively steady over time in such a company, it's a benign divide between ambition and capability. After all, you can't always get what you want, at least not quickly, and sometimes you don't need it.

The unhealthy IT/business divide and the IT organization that no longer makes sense
If that divide grows, you have an indication that ambitions are unrealistic and/or capability is inadequate. Solving that may require better management to focus on achievable ambitions as well as better IT to deliver on the capabilities. And "IT" may not mean the IT department, but technology efforts within business units -- decentralized IT that a CIO and other business leaders orchestrate. That IT isn't a department but a function more akin to finance, which every business unit partially owns and manages, even if it's ultimately under the stewardship of the CFO.

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