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Three ways to revamp the IT/business relationship

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Ian Guerit
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Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus is one of the bestselling non-fiction books of all time.

Some might say it could have been written about the differences between IT people and, well, the rest of us.

IT departments frequently find themselves under a barrage of criticism from their non-IT business colleagues, and the feeling is often mutual. A lack of understanding breeds mistrust and even deep-seated prejudice. Are you tempted to generalise all IT people as being the same? Are you an IT manager with a one-dimensional view of all business folk? If so then that doesn’t sound like a healthy state-of-affairs.

What’s more, it’s a complete disaster for the life of the organisation.

Like a football team unable to ever win a game because its two star players don’t pass the ball to each other; they don’t create enough goal-scoring opportunities, and let too many in at the other end.

But if you can get this relationship right, then you stand to gain:

  • Faster and most cost-efficient technology implementations
  • Better thought through projects that optimise available skills
  • A more resilient team, able to overcome challenges constructively without resorting to blame
  • More robust and realistic objectives and ideas to support innovation
  • Agile business transformation through technology, with significantly reduced risk

So here are three ways to promote a better IT/business interface within your organisation, bringing people together to deliver great results faster, with fewer costs.

Heal tribal differences

Even if it’s not yet all-out war between the two factions in your organisation, you should immediately identify any simmering tensions to arrest the decline.

One or both sides may feel aggrieved about how they have been treated or are perceived. Common complaints from IT people are indecision, over-simplification and wildly misplaced expectations on the part of their business colleagues. Business people, meanwhile, often speak of inaction, negativity and the tendency of IT colleagues to overcomplicate matters, resulting in delays and cost overruns.

As glib as this may sound, the ideal model is post-apartheid South Africa where truth and forgiveness were the integral features of a reconciliation process that returned dignity to individuals and enabled the whole community to progress forward together.

Develop a forum for open, honest communication to promote better mutual understanding so that all can move on toward the common goal of benefiting the organisation.

Learn how to collaborate

Fixing the old bad stuff is just the start. Unless you make systemic changes to the relationship, you risk ending up right back where you started.

Wikis and enterprise collaboration tools like Yammer and Slack can help as they supplement human contact with lightweight ‘social’ interactions within a threaded and searchable environment. For more documentation-heavy projects, shared workspaces such as Huddle, Basecamp or even Google Docs bring positive results. These and other tools also support easier collaboration with trusted third parties whose skills may be crucial for project success.

You might also need to change how ideas and contributions from each team member are inputted and responded to - the so-called ‘feedback loop’. Disillusionment and distrust often seeps into the IT/business relationship because one side feels that whenever it puts in effort, it gets little or no gratitude or other positive response. Addressing this is key to optimising the relationship so that project participants are confident that no contribution is wasted, even when their ideas aren’t implemented.

Create an environment for innovation

The biggest reason IT departments come in for a kicking is because they get in the way of the very thing they exist to support: innovation. Or at least that’s the perception. Having your creativity stifled makes it hard to prevent disappointment spilling over into frustration. But, more often than not, IT people are simply working within the confines of what they see is realistically possible. Any lack of diplomacy on their part in delivering this assessment is not helped when they feel treated as victims of an ‘imposition’ culture; judged on their ability to implement instructions rather than for any innovation value of their own.

The fuel for innovation, however, is time. A useful interpretation of the Pareto principle (the 80-20 rule) is that optimum value is created in an organisation when employees spend no more than 80% of their time on normal operational work, and no less than 20% on innovation. Fail to recognise that a certain amount of time - 20% or otherwise - should be protected for innovation, and you risk having that capability eroded and skills lost.

Another innovation environment is the so-called Tiger Team, a small group empowered by a clear objective, and equipped with the necessary time and resources to accomplish it. There are many variations on this theme - incubators, skunkworks etc - and all can be supplemented or mentored with third party skills.

Paying for innovation with time is a big commitment for any employer, but one with huge potential payoffs.

So many organisations crave IT automation/optimisation initiatives to transform admin-intensive business processes. How ironic that so few either don’t have the time to organise them, or can’t wait long enough to address them properly?

Time is something you’ll need to spend on one of the most important dynamics within your organisation. Get it right for a fantastic return on your investment.

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Topics: IT Manager, Business Relationships, Expectations, Perceptions

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