Naked IT: Author Ed Yourdon on the IT / business divide (includes podcast)

The Naked IT interview series talks with innovators about the evolving relationship between IT and business. Please listen to the audio podcast and enjoy the additional information included in this blog post.

The Naked IT interview series talks with innovators about the evolving relationship between IT and business. Please listen to the audio podcast and enjoy the additional information included in this blog post.

Naked IT: Author Ed Yourdon on the IT / business divide

In this segment, we meet Ed Yourdon, an internationally-recognized author and computer consultant who specializes in project management, software engineering methodologies, and Web 2.0 development. He has written 550 articles and 27 books, including Outsource: competing in the global productivity race, Byte Wars, Managing High-Intensity Internet Projects, Death March, Rise and Resurrection of the American Programmer, and Decline and Fall of the American Programmer. Ed's work spans 45 years, giving him a unique perspective on the computer industry.

Our conversation ranged across a number of important IT issues -- including IT / business alignment, project failures, and changing of the guard in technology -- which Ed analyzed and put into historical context.

On IT / business alignment:

If you start at the strategic level, [lack of alignment] occurs when systems are proposed and budgeted and justified and launched, either without any support at all from the business community that it ultimately should be serving, or without a full appreciation on the part of the business community about what the risks and the costs are going to be.

The question is: whether IT is building the kinds of systems the business needs, or whether they anticipate, and can work strategically, to help the business make the best possible use of IT. That problem has been around for 30 or 40 years.

I remember back in the early nineties when Computerworld did annual surveys of what the top ten IT problems were, and lack of business-IT alignment was usually number one or number two on the list.

On barriers to senior-level IT acceptance:

It's amazing today how many senior executives don't even read their own email. It's mind boggling, but these people are going to die off sooner or later.

As the older generation of marketing- and finance-oriented, computer-illiterate senior managers die off and retire, you'll gradually see a new generation coming in that is fully comfortable with the day-to-day activity and the strategic possibilities of IT, and who will be able to work more closely with CIOs.

The generation of people in their forties, whether or not they are marketing people or financial people, grew up with computers all through college, and are more likely to feel culturally compatible with the CIO.

On the gatekeeper role of IT:

Because IT is clearly so critical to the day to day operation of almost any large organization, IT has to serve as somewhat of a gatekeeper guarding the crown jewels, so to speak, so that they don't get damaged or hacked into, either by insiders or outsiders. That has become a more pervasive and annoying responsibility.

Part of the alignment problem we see when users get excited about new technologies is the notion that IT is preventing the users from getting their hands on these technologies themselves. That sets up a bunch of conflicts.

On losing the battle:

Try to persuade CIOs, much as we did 20 years ago when PCs first arrived on the scene, that if they think they are going to maintain exclusive control over these technologies, and restrict the way employees use them, they are likely to find it a losing battle.

IT departments might be better off trying to figure out how to work in a collaborative and participative fashion. I think otherwise they'll just be ignored and overrun much the way we saw in the PC era, when people quickly figured out that they weren't getting any support from IT departments still focusing on COBOL and mainframes. They went out and bought their own PCs, which caused a great deal of chaos and confusion that could have been avoided.

On IT project failures:

As an expert witness, I get called in because I'm a computer guy and the presumption is if the project failed it must have been a technical failure. However, 99.9% of the time it turns out to be project management 101. They didn't have any requirements, or they kept changing the requirements, or the subject matter experts, who should have been working with the vendor to help identify the requirements, were so busy trying to do their regular job that they didn't have time to even talk to the vendor, etc. This was true 30 years ago and it's still true today.

Most of the cases I've seen have not involved a whole lot of concern on the part of senior management, or even middle management, during the course of the project about potential technical failures. There's usually awareness of potential organizational failures, or management failures, or political failures, or whatever, which may or may not be discussed openly, or shared openly, with the business partners involved.

On doomed IT projects:

In many cases you find projects that are doomed from day one, not because of poor technical capabilities in the IT department, but because of these strategic misunderstandings or misalignments.

Senior management never really understood what the true cost was going to be, or the IT department never told them what the true cost was going to be, and senior management never really provided the organizational support that was going to be necessary to make it all work.

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