When will we stop calling them “the business” and badmouthing “IT”?


So I was having coffee today with a friend of mine and he asked me how I would describe our customers. As I started into my usual spiel about how we tend to work with mid-large sized companies, about half of the time with the CIO and about half of the time with their business executive peers, I found myself quickly diving into a conversation I have had many times before. I explain that the IT organization is often frustrated by “the business” and “the business” is often frustrated by IT. People always identify with one or the other … saying something like, “Oh, can you please come help the IT organization in MY company? They can’t do anything right.” Or the IT employee saying “Our company really needs your help and perspective – the business has such unreasonable demands.” Over the years, this I’ve noted that this problem is getting worse: more people identify with it and their feelings of exasperation on the matter are intensified.

As a side note, I don’t even like the term “the business”. A lot of my IT organizations don’t either, and they have tried to come up with fancy ways around it, like renaming the business “customers”, “clients” or “business partners”. I believe the business has come up with some other names for IT as well. All of these terms just encourage the “us versus them” attitude and culture. Many IT organizations have tried to follow best practices and take a customer mindset, or establish themselves as a “services” organization. This is further driving separation between the two.

This leaves me wondering: when are businesses ever going to think of themselves as one company with a set of IT challenges that they work through together? I’m pessimistic because over the last few years, the IT function and the rest of their companies have been forced to increase their interaction: the pace of technology change drives a need for more IT projects, non-IT employees are much more technically competent, and software development methods like agile by definition integrate business “customers” with IT on a more regular and significant basis. Things should be improving and relationships are degenerating further. Perhaps the IT solutions delivered are better, but people do not like what they see behind the open kimono. Perhaps it was better back in the old days when people hunkered down for months and years and just did their work without too much insight into how it was affecting the rest of their company.

The answer isn’t putting up the walls again. I believe everyone in the company needs to be strategically aligned around the goals for technology and in agreement about the progress towards those goals. The more we segregate responsibilities and define the “us versus them”, the more people will be incented to blame each other for failures rather than jumping in to help achieve common objectives. This is a major cultural shift for many companies, large and small.