Why IT and business just can't get along

IT's unique culture frequently differs from that of the rest of the business. And when cultures collide, conflict is common

When IT and business staff clash, things can get ugly quick. Everyone has experienced some measure of tension across the business/IT divide. But is that tension a simple clash of personalities -- or is it a clash of cultures? Solve the wrong problem, and tensions are likely to escalate.

At many organizations, this environment of conflict between business and IT is commonplace. It hinders daily operations and interferes with ongoing projects. Worse, it can prevent IT from evolving to meet the expectations of next-generation IT.

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As a result, fixing this tension should be a high priority for everyone on both sides of the divide. And the first step in fixing a contentious business/IT relationship is an accurate diagnosis. If you get that wrong, if you don't fully understand why IT clashes with the rest of the business, your solution has virtually no chance of working.

Next-generation IT

As a reminder, next-generation IT embraces three core principles (he asserted with his usual and abundant humility):

  1. IT is the steward of the company's information resources, not the owner
  2. IT empowers end users to be innovators by opening new technological doors for them as motivated by end-user choice
  3. IT is strategic in supporting "single-actor business practices" -- a significant tactical shift from years of paying attention only to core processes

To play that role, IT needs a positive, healthy, and properly defined relationship with the rest of the business. The question is how to make that happen.

The "gang of 16" organized by Paul Glen (of "Leading Geeks" fame), his business partner Maria McManus, and yours truly descended on Las Vegas a few weeks ago to discuss just what that takes to establish a thriving relationship between IT and business. (Michael Hugos, one of the participants, describes a snippet in a recent CIO.com write-up titled "Are Geeks Different?")

Our conversation was wide-ranging. It hasn't yet resulted in consensus ... unsurprising given the multidimensional nature of the challenge.

Personality vs. culture

All of us who participated in the discussion agree that communication between IT professionals and business professionals is frequently ineffective, and we all believe that this is a problem that has to be rectified if the business/IT relationship is to be placed on a solid footing.

We also agree (I think) that this lack of effective communication is a root cause of dysfunctional business/IT relationships, not the root cause.

Were you to ask all 16 of us where we disagree, however, you'd probably get 16 different answers. This is, after all, a work in progress and we have more progress yet to make than progress yet achieved.

Here's my take on the nub of it: Some in the conversation believe the core issue is that IT professionals have a distinct personality type. We're geeks, geeks have a different way of thinking than the non-geeks who inhabit the rest of the enterprise, and it's the difference in how we think that's the core issue.

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