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Business vs. IT: The Real Problem Is 'Stinking Thinking'

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Reported results from a recent Canadian study of the long-standing battle between business and Information Technology managers have started me thinking about why this is a battle at all–not to mention why it seems to never abate.

According to the study–by Info-Tech Research Group and KnowledgeStorm–the problem is that IT managers’ “tech talk” baffles business managers and fails to communicate IT imperatives.

“Lack of alignment between the IT and business management sides of the enterprise means there’s a Tower of Babel scenario happening in most businesses when IT program requirements are discussed,” says Michael O’Neil, a research fellow with Info-Tech. “Either the IT managers need to develop strong communications skills to put forward the needs and benefits of IT investment, or they need to find suppliers who excel at articulating value to executives.”

So the answer is as simple as improving communication? Well, I’m just not buying that. While it would be hard to argue with better communication as a goal, I have a hunch that there’s more to this problem than an improved facility for the written or spoken word can address.

You see, the real problem is not how well the two sides communicate their needs and capabilities, although that is certainly important. Instead, the core difficulty lies in how the would-be combatants think and the expectations that grow out of that thinking.

The kind of thinking I’m talking about–the kind that defies reality, damages relationships, scuttles projects and ruins careers–is endemic to the business/IT struggle. This kind of thinking is puerile, selfish, unrealistic, and even delusional.

In my other life as a counselor, I often encounter these self-deceptive, illogical and self-destructive thought patterns in drug addicts and alcoholics. It’s a small wonder that in 12-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous, they refer to it as “stinking thinking.”

So what examples of “stinking thinking” find their way into the business/IT relationship? How about the business executive who believes she can just throw a business project over the fence and get a perfect solution from those “weird” IT people?

The executive expects the IT staff to read her mind, understand her business needs and to quickly craft a solution with no input from the business side. This naive idea flies in the face of reality and common sense, yet it pains me to say that this kind of thing happens every day.

Such foolishness may have its roots in the image that many on the business side have of IT people, whom they view as the great unwashed–nerds, socially challenged geeks, and bad dressers, who nonetheless possess arcane knowledge that even the business person realizes is critical to the company. That mixture of disdain and quiet envy is a bitter cocktail that does not go down easily for the business person. Too often, the result is that meaningful communication is not even attempted.

Further examples of “stinking thinking” abound: “I will only have to invest in this technology once, then there will be no further cost;” “Technology doesn’t relate to real life;” “Tech people don’t have a clue about business;” “We can’t learn this new technology;” “We’ve been burned by technology before; those IT people are trying to rip us off.”

Certainly, better communication is a key to ameliorating business/IT problems, but even more than that, a major attitude adjustment is in order–on both sides. Let’s not forget that while business managers might brand their IT counterparts as eccentrics, IT folks might tend to think of business managers as hopeless Luddites who lack creativity and imagination.

It has been said that sanity is the relentless pursuit of reality. The best advice I can offer both business managers and IT managers is to consider whether or not you have been guilty of the kind of faulty thinking we’ve been discussing.

Business managers–when a tech project involves you, do you find convenient, if specious, reasons to avoid becoming involved with it? (And if you’re an IT manager, do you dismiss the idea because you just can’t stomach working with those business people?)

The problem with technology isn’t necessarily the people who work with it, or the fact that you don’t know a lot about business or IT. Maybe the problem is that you’d rather not put in the effort to understand something that could very well help you significantly. So, you dismiss it with a glib remark like, “Who knows what those propeller-heads are talking about anyway?” or “Those business guys just don’t get IT.”

“Stinking thinking” has a certain appeal–to addicts and others whose agendas are hopelessly self-involved and truth-averse. It has no place in a responsible and well-run company.


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