I Hate the Business

341px %22WE ARE BUILDING THIS DAM%22   NARA   516059
… paved with good intentions.

Hmm, not quite … how about

I Hate “the Business”

More specifically – I really am getting uncomfortable with the whole “IT and the Business” meme:

demonstrating IT alignment with the business
IT’s relationship with the business
IT and the business need to work together / build partnerships
the Project is made up of the IT team and the Business team

… and so on. It’s an unhealthy mind set to get into; when corporate IT, pundits, research firms, consultants and vendors continue to use this figure of speech, we are all reinforcing the wall between IT and our corporate brethren – the same wall we think we are tearing down. (author’s note: guilty as charged!)

Do you hear people talk about Finance and the business? HR and the business? I don’t – and if any of those functional areas are falling into their own semantic trap, I suggest they reverse course as well.

Us vs. Them

I vaguely remember an old story from Psych 101, about an experiment where people were randomly given a red or a blue cap, and placed in a room. They were told nothing – just sit and wait … but human nature takes over. All the folks with red caps migrated to the one side of the room, and the folks with blue caps to the other. No, I can’t remember the specifics, but I did some google-surfing this afternoon and found the technical term for all of this – the Minimal Group Paradigm, which observes that it takes but the barest, most insignificant differentiator to get people to self-organize – and separate – into groups.

Unfortunately, this also leads to something called in-group-out-group bias, a fancy way of saying us vs. them; the Wikipedia article gets a bit sad as your read it and start to see some of your own organization in the examples of conflict, aggression, and prejudice.

Based on what?

Why the need to create these groups? The folks in IT might say that “we are the only ones who really understand technology and information”. Well, if that’s true, why are issues like BYOD, SaaS, the Cloud, and Shadow IT popping up all over the place, and roundly seen as Threats to classic corporate IT departments?

It’s not just IT, of course; folks in finance, operations, and marketing all kid about the “techno-geeks” that speak another language – as if ROI, S&OP, and CPI are universally known and understood (LOL). The wall gets larger as both sides pile up the misconceptions.

They is Us

However, we all know this kind of cognitive bias and divisiveness can be overcome. I mean, there are good schools (Go Irish!) and bad schools (the entire Big 10**), but all of that goes out the door when athletes are mixed together for the national Olympics team (USA! USA!). Can’t we do the same for IT, Finance, Sales, Engineering, Manufacturing, etc.?

When the world talks about the rise of consumer-type expectations for IT, the transformative power of analytics and data visualization, and the potential for social networking and collaboration in corporate America – we are all reaffirming the critical role IT plays in all aspects of the business. IT is just as fundamental to a competitive, sustainable, successful Business as sales, operations, finance, HR, legal, and the rest.

When the world talks about the demise of the CIO unable to adapt to and/or deliver these capabilities – we are all imploring corporate IT to figure out how to play that critical role, delivering these critical capabilities while still delivering sustainable, reliable, and secure systems.

Journey of 1000 Miles

Where to begin? Let’s start by eliminating the “and the Business”-type speech from our writing and speech. Be warned – it sounds easy, but it’s a hard habit to break. I’ve been working on this change myself for about a month or two, and it’s pretty tough at times; “the business” has become a convenient shorthand, a nice sound bite. Trouble is, reality is rarely that simple – and we all know how sound bites taken out of context can be funny, sad, damaging – classic sources of misunderstandings and problems.

I have taken to referring to the various “functional areas [of the business]”, in presentations, in writing, and in meetings. Potentially unfortunate if the listener jumps to the conclusion that IT, by juxtaposition, is a dysfunctional area of the business – but hey, it’s a start.

** Just kidding about the whole Big 10 thing – it’s really just the Michigan schools, right GRM?

This Post Has One Comment
  1. Now as a guy from the UK I may not fully understand Jim’s references to American Football but I certainly do connect with the subtle problem of divisive terminology such as ‘The Business’.

    So – how big a problem is the relationship, alignment or partnership between IT teams and other business colleagues? Well, I find it varies greatly from company to company but the one true constant I see is it’s the people themselves that forge great working relationships regardless of what their role or specific skills are. If the people ‘get it’ and see they are all one team that support each other to reach a common goal then there is no problem to be found.

    OK so that’s the pinnacle of an effective team that interacts with excellence but how on earth do you get there? Tough question with no easy or common answer!

    I’m a believer in having the right people in place, with the right attitude, energy, mix of skills and of course the leadership to help them achieve as a group and think long-term. From this good foundation point you can build at pace to get to where you need to be.

    One thing I do know about American Football is that the most successful teams are the ones that ‘get it’ and know what it takes to support each other, respect one and others skills and overcome anything that tries to divide and weaken them.

    So build those teams and help them practice at winning and celebrating as one united group. If you do you’ll find subtle problems can sometimes resolve themselves.

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James MacLennan

... is the Managing Partner at Maker Turtle LLC, a digital consultancy focused on creating value in ways that align with your strategy and drive engagement with employees, customers, and stakeholders. He is an active creator, providing thought leadership through on-line & print publications, and public speaking / keynotes.