IT has been around in most organisations for 30 to 40 years in some form or other. In the last 10 to 15 years the scale and scope of IT has extended massively, both in the business and domestic world. Most organisations and businesses are now completely and irrevocably dependent on IT and would not last long without it. IT hasn’t simply become more essential or important to business; it’s a fundamental part of it.
Bearing this in mind, it’s hardly surprising that people get emotional and upset when things don’t work to plan. It is a shame, even though there are so many problems in this area, that there is still a ‘business/IT divide’. Businesses can lose millions of pounds and huge amounts of credibility when their IT systems fail or prove inadequate. But why does this happen and what can we do to improve the situation? It is undoubtedly a board-level issue, and it should be the responsibility of the CIO to break down barriers between IT and the rest of the business, if the overall objectives of an organisation are to be communicated effectively.
I’ve worked in the customer service industry, both inside and outside of IT, for 25 years and have been involved in over 300 projects to implement and improve services and systems. Some have worked well and some have not. The common denominator and key success criteria are always the same – people. This is why the CIO plays such a pivotal role in ensuring that the company goals are smoothly disseminated across all levels of the organisation.
There is no doubt that IT users tend to notice more when things do go wrong. Not only do IT users make IT problems highly visible (complaining to peers and bosses, etc), but they often contextualise the problem in catastrophic terms. However, there really is no excuse for an organisation’s IT service desks to not be run properly, efficiently and professionally. CIOs need to look to best-practice methodologies such as IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL) that are specifically designed to manage and deliver reliable and proactive IT support.
Despite the fact that in most cases IT support actually delivers genuinely good-quality solutions, most of the time, there can still be a poor relationship between IT and the business. At the heart of this lies a basic issue of trust – or distrust – between IT and its users/customers, and between business and IT people. In many cases this has been due to embedded culture within organisations, where ‘this is the way we do it here’ way of thinking has prevailed despite cosmic changes in technology and capability. Although attitudes have changed dramatically in recent years, the old IT ‘ivory tower’ culture still has some hold and residue in many organisations. In truth, the lack of trust mostly comes down to a simple fact: business people are not interested in IT and IT people don’t understand business (particularly communications and marketing).
IT practitioners are often poor at dealing with people and basic interactive communication, such as writing clear and relevant documents, emails and memos. In particular, IT is often poor at providing information and reporting to its customers in a language that speaks to them. Most of the people I’ve worked with in IT want to do a good job and are often mortified if they realise that their customers are unhappy with their work. They are mostly hardworking, intelligent and capable, but often simply lack the acquired intuitive skills in relationship building and good practical communications to make a positive impression. We need to see broad-based development of people across IT – not just technical training but interpersonal techniques as well. It is down to the CIO to make sure that this takes place.
It is also imperative that the CIO works with IT to prioritise what it should be doing within its resource constraints. Too often the IT department is simply dumped upon and expected to deliver multiple new projects, and still facilitate business as usual, without sufficient resources or support. CIOs need to promote and facilitate optimum collaboration at all levels across an organisation to ensure that people work together on projects, and that relevant executive decisions are made to ensure that expectations can be realised.
A substantial amount of time and money can be spent on good design, collaboration, testing and implementation practices, but often, once delivered, these systems do not actually meet the fundamental business needs of the organisation. If IT issues aren’t understood or even debated at the senior level, then middle management is left to sort out the intractable resource and priority problems. This is where the CIO’s role is crucial. Organisations without board-level representation for IT will simply continue to struggle.
Organisations must look to the fundamental causes and issues behind their IT problems and not just jump to conclusions whenever things go wrong. There is no point constantly berating the IT service desk if the organisation behind it isn’t integrated and supportive. The job of the CIO is to ensure that the organisation as a whole gets involved and takes part in setting the relative priorities and risk management of new and existing systems. If business areas are not brought on board then this is ultimately left up to IT – and IT people are good at IT, not business. If CIOs can successfully bridge the communication gap between business and IT, then business people can continue making the business decisions, while the technical stuff is left to the techies to deal with effectively.
Barclay Rae is professional services director at HDI Europe