5 IT vs. Business Battlegrounds

The top five areas where department heads and IT staff commonly clash.

By Brian Chavis

It is common for the relationship between IT and the other departments to become strained over time. Many factors can contribute to the friction between company unit leaders and the IT group. Regardless of the causes for the interdepartmental tension, we have found that this stress plays out in common ways among the companies we have audited.

One of the first steps in an assessment of IT functionality is to interview as many people on the management team as possible. As we service companies of roughly 100 to 300 computer users with a small IT staff, this usually involves between 30 and 40 interviews.

Based on these interactions, here are our observations about where department heads and IT commonly clash.

Battleground #1: Communication

More often than not, when asked for their biggest issue with IT, managers respond with a one word answer: "communication." Digging deeper, we find that there are generally three types of feedback that are grouped underneath this word.

First, there are those who claim insufficient follow-up, missed appointments, or lack of progress reporting. We don't study these issues too deeply because this feedback is typical of any internal support group, and it is easily remedied with coaching or replacement of problem employees.

The second type of complaints come from managers who claim to have no idea what IT people are saying and little patience for figuring it out. They stop listening at the first hint of technical jargon and surrender any chance for a reasonable or coherent conversation.

The third type of grievance is the most interesting to us because it is really about control. Managers complain that the conversation is always one sided. Regardless of the input of the manager, IT will always have the last word and decisions will be made with little regard for departmental input.

Battleground #2: Respect

The number one complaint from the IT people about department management boils down to an issue of respect. Because the "computer people" can see the complexity of the technology behind the curtain, they know how fragile these systems can be. They shoulder the huge responsibility of keeping the lights blinking and no one seems to care. IT departments are rarely commended for their work but are regularly criticized -- often in emotional and unprofessional ways. IT staff feel overworked and underappreciated.

Another aspect to this respect issue comes from the visibility of the IT support staff to everyone in the company. Whereas the productivity of most office workers is known only by departmental managers and peers, everyone in the organization has an opinion of the work product of the IT people. It is difficult to maintain your corporate spirit if anyone in the company, high or low on the organization chart, has the ability to openly criticize your efforts.

Also of note in our meetings with IT staff is their reaction to the departmental complaints about communication documented in battleground #1 -- "managers never read our e-mails." I will let that comment speak for itself.

Battleground #3: Process

The biggest everyday contributor to the friction between IT and end users is a lack of precision about the response to technical issues. Today most organizations have a help desk with procedures for tracking problems. However, if there is any perception that the ticketing process can be circumvented, the system will produce more tension than it relieves.

To illustrate this point, imagine yourself entering a deli, moving through the crowd, and pulling a ticket to get your place in line. As long as the numbers keep moving in order, you are patient and friendly. However, if people start coming in to the counter and getting service ahead of you without ever pulling a ticket for themselves, how fast would your attitude change? Most people would drop the ticket process entirely and use their elbows.

This behavior applies to the help desk. Office workers tell us that an appropriate process for issue resolution is more important than the amount of time it takes to solve the problem. In other words, they are happy to be patient as long as the process is fair. However, they become agitated quickly if people are cutting in line. If the corporate culture allows some people to call mobile phones, hijack the "IT guy" in the hall, or use their position to jump ahead, the long-term result can only lead to widespread distrust in the system.

Battleground #4: Balance

The fourth area of contention involves the decision process that balances the IT needs of the individual departments with the IT needs of the organization as a whole. The traditional battlegrounds for this equilibrium are security, standards, and product selection.

Security is contradictory to convenience in the workplace, and is often the IT trump card to kill popular new capabilities. Standards and policies are essential to an organized IT department but are seen as restrictive and bureaucratic by the staff. More often than not, product selection becomes an exercise in configuring the lowest common denominator of needs across the entire business rather than accommodating the uniqueness of departmental missions.

We find the biggest threats to this balance of needs are the disruptive technologies -- mobile devices and the cloud. All engagements in the last two years have shown that these emerging technologies are the new front line in the battle between IT and the departments.

Battleground #5: Commitment

This last potential spot for an IT and management clash is subtle, rarely addressed, and often baked into the company culture. Stated simply, it is the degree of willingness of management to take the responsibility for requiring their employees to adapt to change.

For example, this principle comes to light during rollouts of new or upgraded software applications. The amount of resolve from department heads to place clear expectations for cooperation among their staff is the most critical factor for the success of a major implementation. Without the leadership from the manager, IT staff are forced to battle with department employees on their own without the authority needed for a smooth execution. The result is often job disruption, missed deadlines, and mediocre results. More often than not, the blame for the unpleasant experience will fall back on IT, not on the complacent department head.

A Final Word

On a day-to-day basis, this concept of commitment applies as well. High expectations by managers for employees to learn new technology skills in their job can significantly reduce the pressure on IT. The degree to which department heads expect their personnel to solve their own problems, work around minor issues, and learn new tricks, the more that IT can focus on the core infrastructure of the business rather than on the care of individuals. That is what they really want to do!

Brian Chavis is CEO of ARGroup, which celebrated its 26th year in 2012 as a technology advisory firm. Over that time, they have served as consultants to hundreds of businesses across a broad spectrum of industries. ARGroup pioneered the practice of fees determined solely on the outcome of their work. You can contact the author at Bchavis@argroup.com.
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