IT-business gap grows wider

A survey released by Info-Tech Research Group and Internet search resource company KnowledgeStorm says the increasingly common disconnect between IT and business managers has gone endemic, and could signal a drastic change in the way enterprise technology is run.

Matt Lohman, director of market research with Alpharetta, Ga.-based KnowledgeStorm, said the survey of hundreds of IT specialists and business managers worldwide found a large gap between business managers’ and IT professionals’ perceptions about how well technology transforms a business and how technology can contribute to business growth.

“The big surprise coming out of this survey was the level of communication. There is still a distinct gap (between IT professionals and business managers),” said Lohman.

This can partly be attributed to a change in the working environment, said Lohman. “There used to be a much more hierarchical structure in which orders were passed downstream. Now it’s much more of a matrix that is all about interconnectivity. People wear more hats.”

He said the disconnect has been an issue in the IT industry since the days of the tech boom. “There’s been that lack of understanding of how to cross over into the business mentality. Those who find success, like making it to the CIO’s office, those are the folks who are able to possess those skills.”

Lohman said that there are ways for IT professionals to try and expand their skills portfolio. “You need to get IT people with diverse skill sets involved in cross-function opportunities, and expose them to the reasons why things are done and what is driving the business goals,” said Lohman.

An example would be to have members of the IT department sit in on strategic meetings, or take part in as many group projects as possible, so as to reap the benefits of working with a diverse set of people and a variety of skill sets and goals.

He also suggests that IT professionals join networking and industry associations to hone interpersonal skills and get a feel for the range of technological pursuits and the common aims of other businesses in the enterprise and how their IT staff is coping with them. “Or join an online social network — this can be parlayed into a broad-reaching knowledge of different IT roles,” said Lohman.

These attempts to bridge the gap might not be enough, according to Michael O’Neil, Info-Tech Research Group research fellow and author of the survey.

“Do we really need technology specialists who can communicate with the business managers, or do we need business managers who can be understood by the technology specialists?” he said. “It’s much more than a language issue now. We can no longer count on (IT professionals) to be able to communicate with the business managers — the whole premise of needing ‘soft skills’ or of expanding the IT department (to better integrate technology into the business) is not necessarily a good one.”

While the problem is increasingly being acknowledged, Lohman said, the IT professional could get left in the lurch anyway, as the trend of business managers making the technology decisions picks up speed. “Vendors have definitely been marketing toward business decision-makers,” said Lohman.

“There needs to be a buy-in for the business manager for a company to buy something.” Evidence of this can be found in the booming business of business intelligence software, according to Lohman, who said that the predominance of managers who have grown up with and are comfortable with technology is also a contributing factor.

O’Neil thinks that the future of the IT professional no longer lies in acting as an important support system or innovative visionary but as a “utility.” According to him, as technology becomes more and more an integral part of the enterprise, the role where IT functions as a discrete, advisory body will disappear; those left behind, he said, will be the “bits and bytes types” who want to work with the nitty-gritty of IT (such as network admins or coders), while the majority of IT professionals are assimilated into areas pertaining to business processes and strategy.

According to Lohman, there are already new positions on the horizon for IT professionals. “The technology is going to the business analyst side,” he said. “It’s the (business) people who still have pretty good skills on the IT side (that are successful) — they have access to data and need to be able to manage the data.”

The idea of IT being handled by everyone but the IT department may seem strange, but it might be the key to getting the goals of the IT professional and the business manager in synch, according to O’Neil: “The IT function needs to be a utility — the majority of it should be diffused into the business departments themselves so that the gaps in perception (of what role technology plays in a business’ goals) will close.” Info-Tech and KnowledgeStorm’s Global Solution Perspective surveyed more than 1,000 people in more than 90 countries.

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