I found an interesting interview/article in CIO magazine discussing the hero culture that often develops in IT departments. The basic idea is that IT which are trying to be the most responsive for their respective business often go beyond what would normally be expected of any person to achieve deadlines and make sure the client is happy. Everyone loves a hero, right?? External consulting organizations are just as guilty of this and in many cases, use it to earn significant follow on work. Symptoms like frequent all nighters, extended work on weekends, and scope/cost overruns on projects are all most common indicators of an IT group or individuals in IT that have taken on the hero culture. And the “fun” part is that is that it’s self repeating.

Since the business love having these rockstars at their disposal, IT executives will search for the highest horsepower individuals available in the marketplace (maybe supplemented by key external consultants) to strengthen their hero responsiveness. And as it continues, both IT and the business often reward the behavior through raises, bonuses, promotions, new sales, etc. to reinforce the ideas that this is business as usual. Often times, it leads to internal IT personnel earning new jobs and transitioning over to the business due to their high profile success stories.

While I don’t agree with all of the points stated by the interviewees, I do profess to having seen this phenomenon quite frequently in my 12 years in IT. On my strategy projects, many times we ask IT executives what they want and what their counterparts in the business want them to be in terms of an organization: Innovative, Cost Efficient, or Customer Intimate. After hearing these options, many clients struggle to clearly define where they are positioned.  And when you contrast a CIO’s opinion, for example, to the opinions of the business, there can be significant disparity between perception and reality as well. The truth is each option carries with it different levels of resource commitment, processes and organizational realities.

Customer intimate is the closet to what the CIO magazine is characterizing as the main strength of the hero culture; responsiveness to your clients needs.  In reality, some IT organizations straddle the line between the two. But it becomes particularly problematic when a group that has become customer intimate/hero focused is effective is also trying to be cost effective which as the author says “Managing business user expectations, adhering to process, and proactively managing problems is contradictory to this (hero) culture.” Such is the source of tension that can develop between IT and the business its trying to support.  Adding a BPO organization to the mix doesn’t solve the hero issue either. Business executives who think they can just outsource and maintain the same level of responsiveness are surprised when their former rockstars are now replaced by a faceless ticketing system that focuses on controls and process.

So, the next time you notice IT groups that are willing to burn the candle at both end to deliver a project on time, remember the pattern it can produce. Once in awhile is ok to achieve a critical business goal or initiative, but a better way to achieve a sustainable relationship between business and IT is through ongoing management and consistency of process, transparency/communication and repeated expectation setting.