IT and the Business Need a Group Hug

Our company, ConverterTechnology, has been helping enterprises worldwide mitigate data risk for over 15 years.  We started helping companies identify and remediate risk when doing a Microsoft Office and Windows migrations and have expanded into broader areas of data risk management. In the beginning our value proposition was simple and seemingly a no-brainer.  If you were upgrading from Office 2003 to Office 2010 wouldn’t you like to have your most complicated and business critical Office files automatically tested and remediated for any incompatibilities between versions? Of course you would. Especially when talking about millions and millions of Office files that would potentially need to be tested manually.  The return on investment is so obvious that our sales team should just be taking orders. Alas, that is not the case and I know why.

The cold war between IT and the business units.

Like a marriage that has fallen into dysfunction, this couple is living under the same roof, but sleeping in different bedrooms. Instead of working like a well-oiled machine, gears inseparably meshed, driving towards a common goal, this relationship has become strained, guarded, and in some cases downright petulant. I have experienced it first hand and it is sad to watch. Both sides are right and wrong at the same time. How can that be? It’s all a matter of perception and communication (or the lack thereof).

In a utopian scenario, the symbiotic relationship between the business units and IT would be highly collaborative and efficient with each side working towards an agreed upon, definable goal.  In some organizations, that is exactly what happens.  However, my experience has been that it is frequently the exception and not the norm. What we have seen with our client interactions  and prospective clients, is akin to siblings squabbling over control of the TV remote. Except these are business systems designed to help the enterprise be more competitive and efficient.  Sometimes the business units and IT are working in a stovepipe fashion on these applications or initiatives. Can you imagine why these projects often take longer and exceed budgets? Or why ongoing maintenance and support is a challenge? Both sides dig in and no one wins in the long run.

However, the key to understanding the issue is to remember these are business systems, not IT systems. The business’ primary responsibility is to drive revenue and increase shareholder value.  How well the business does that  usually determines the level of success or failure for the organization.  With technology being so embedded and critical to almost every form of business, keeping the systems up to date and running efficiently, but most importantly in line with what the business is trying to accomplish, is the prime directive for IT.  The business is the profit center and IT is a cost center/service bureau. This does not mean IT has a diminished role or responsibility.  If fact, just the opposite. To use an auto racing analogy, you could have the best driver, the best engine, the best tires, and the best body design, but if your pit crew is not up to the task, then you will find your car lapped by the field.

When we engage with a potential client who is queuing up an Office migration, for example, we often interface with the IT side, not the business.  After all, IT is chartered with the care, feeding and upgrading of business applications.  All good so far.  However, we quickly realize that there is often a disconnect when it comes to certain business critical applications (such as Microsoft Office) that are used to create IP, but are seemingly outside of the purview of IT.  One of our most common push-backs when talking to enterprises about how we can potentially help them with an Office migration is the notion that there were no problems the last time they upgraded. That statement can be both true and false simultaneously.

Permit me to explain.  When we ask IT if they can identify which Excel or Access files are critical to the business, we usually get a blank stare followed by an “I don’t really know” or “the business owns that.”  Often they cannot even tell us how many Office files exist in the organization, never mind which are critical, password protected (an issue for another day), which are used daily, monthly, quarterly, etc.  When asked why IT does not know this, the response is always the same – the business is responsible for those types of applications and files. There’s the rub. If you don’t know which files are important, then how do you know there were not any problems upgrading last time? It’s a rhetorical question.  Of course there were problems, it is just the business took care of fixing the problems and not IT. So, in a way it is a lot like the philosophical pondering of “if a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound?” If IT is never made aware of issues then were there any issues? Not from the point of view of IT, but there were, in fact, problems. Should IT champion the identification and remediation of issues that arise out of an upgrade? Does the enterprise really want the business to be spending cycles and resources fixing issues just to return to a steady state post migration? Would you expect the race car driver to jump out of the car at pit stop and change his own tires? Probably not. So why didn’t the business communicate these issues with IT?  Excellent question and one with many possible answers.

Perhaps the business does not feel IT will be responsive to their needs or that they won’t be willing to take on the workload.  Maybe, the business does not even think to solicit help from IT. For instance, a few savvy business analysts with a flair for VBA and macros can create very powerful Excel applications. We call these app-like files because their functionality and criticality are beyond just a basic Excel file, even though they are still technically just a file on a file share. Ultimately, it is not healthy for the enterprise to have the business independently developing and supporting their own IP without the help of IT.  There has to be joint ownership between these two stakeholders. So, if these types of files exist why wouldn’t IT want to have some sort of dominion over these beyond basic storage and backup?

Here is where it tends to get a little dicey and territorial.

When discussing an Office 2003 to Office 2010 migration with a large global financial services company, an IT program manager told us that “if we use your tool to identify problems, then IT will be responsible for fixing those problems and I don’t want that responsibility.” True story.  Sadly, this type of attitude is more pervasive than one may think.  It is the “we didn’t build it, so we don’t support it” view.  It is understandable and logical how this mentality develops though. However, when we ask IT for an introduction to the business to familiarize them with our solutions and help them directly (with or without IT support) with their upcoming incompatibility issues, we usually get one or more of the following responses from our IT contact:

  • No
  • No, we have already told them there would be no problems
  • No, because the budget is already set and we didn’t budget for additional tools
  • No, because they would push the work back to us and we don’t want the extra work {this one is actually almost legitimate, since IT teams are frequently understaffed and can barely handle their existing workload}
  • No, but I’ll take it to the next business committee meeting and present your solution {fabulous, now the person who doesn’t want to acknowledge the problem is going to be our salesman to the committee – what could possibly go wrong?}
  • Maybe

So, there is the trap that we often walk into.  It hard work selling out of a hole like that, but the real loser is the enterprise who misses out on the opportunity to save time and resources by automating a part of their Office upgrade. It’s troubling how petty power trips and communication breakdowns have caused a rift between these two groups who fundamentally depend on each other to run the enterprise optimally.

How does this sort itself out so both sides start working better which each other? Good question.

Like all relationships that are not functioning well, it starts with admitting the problem and a genuine willingness to bridge the gap.  This takes courage, no doubt, but it is an essential step to get the stakeholders back in line with common objectives – maximizing performance by optimizing resources.  Only through open and genuine communication between IT and business can this be achieved.

So, how about it business and IT– group hug?