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IT on the rocks, or IT's finest hour?

One commentator explains why 'decades if business-IT acrimony' came to a head during the recent economic slowdown.
Written by Joe McKendrick, Contributing Writer on

Are users starting to rebel against their information technology departments?

In a piece just published in the latest issue of CIO, Thomas Wailgum ponders whether anti-IT sentiment within organizations is reaching a boiling point. End users in the business are getting fed up with the complexity and inflexibility of their IT departments. The recent economic downturn was the icing on the cake.

Gene Kranz, NASA flight director.  Credit: NASA

Gene Kranz, NASA flight director. Credit: NASA

Wailgum points out that all of today’s enterprises rely heavily on IT to operate on a day-to-day basis. He goes down the list of vital functions — from business development to manufacturing — and challenges: “Try doing any of those without IT.”

Yet, he points out, frustration with IT is boiling over:

“Decades of business-IT acrimony combined with demand for new consumer-oriented Web-based applications (which IT has been slow to embrace) and layers upon layers of accrued tech legacy have boiled into frustration and anti-IT sentiment.”

Wailgum declares this love-hate standoff between IT and the business “the new normal,” accelerated by the recent economic downturn. It’s all about pushing IT to the outer edge of the productivity envelope to help meet fast-moving business targets in a fast-moving global economy.

Wailgum seems to have tapped into a vein of frustration that clearly is being felt. But I’d like to paraphrase the supposed response of Gene Kranz, NASA flight director, in the movie Apollo 13, when told that the accident that took out the Apollo’s service module would be the worst disaster in NASA history. His response: “With all due respect, sir, I believe this is gonna be our finest hour.”

Some see the recent economic trough as one of IT’s finest hours. For example, a survey off 444 C-level executives by McKinsey & Company at the end of last year found that in the wake of the recent economic hurricane, many non-IT executives seemed to have developed a healthier appreciation for their information technology functions. Business executives, overall, seem pleased with the way IT helped organizations navigate the rough seas. IT leaders themselves, however, feel they could be doing better.

McKinsey also recently issued another study that suggests that IT leaders should be put in charge of emerging ‘lean’ initiatives — because they are most experienced and adept at streamlining, standardizing, and integrating process improvements.

Still, there are areas where a large, complex, creaky IT structure may be holding things back. For example, in a survey I conducted as part of my work with Unisphere Research/Information Today Inc. and the Oracle Applications User Group, we found that while many companies aspire to “compete on analytics,” decision-makers still wait days, weeks, and even months for reports on the state of their business. Most still do not have access to analytic tools.

So, there are many different views on the complicated relationship between IT and the business. To help smooth things over, and hopefully quell an end-user rebellion, Wailgum makes the following recommendations for reducing the rift between IT and business:

  • CIOs and IT managers, change your mindset: “Engaging with business has to change from an autocratic mindset to a partnership one,” Wailgum writes. “Traditional business processes resembling ‘replication and incremental refinement’ have to shift to ‘disruptive and transformative’; infrastructure management moves from ‘reliable and expensive’ to ‘flexible and cost effective.’”
  • Biz speak only: “Today’s harsh business climate necessitates clear and consistent communication… without that communication piece, they just aren’t getting the traction and acceleration that they need right now.”
  • Know your customers — all of them: It’s imperative that CIOs and IT understand the ever-changing technology wants and needs of not only internal users and managers but their company’s external customers.”
  • Don’t fear failure: “The imperative for CIOs is to explore and experiment with so-called disruptive technologies (Web 2.0, social media, cloud computing) that users and customers have embraced.”
  • Be ready to be asked for more than ever before: The new mantra for IT departments is ‘cut and grow,’ which requires deft management.

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