Survey: Continuing friction between business and IT

One-third of 437 business executives surveyed recently by Forrester Research Inc. said they’re dissatisfied with the performance of their IT departments. But some IT managers and analysts said the results aren’t surprising – and may actually represent an improvement in IT’s standing.

The survey, which was released by Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester in April, also found that dissatisfied business managers are more likely to fight with IT departments for control of technology initiatives. Moreover, the unhappy business executives think that their companies lag others in adopting new technologies and face higher IT project failure rates, said Forrester analyst Meredith Child.

Because this was the first time Forrester posed these questions to business leaders, it’s hard to say whether the survey results signal an improvement or a decline in satisfaction with IT. But “if you ran this study in 1995, I bet the numbers might be flipped – that 66 per cent would have been dissatisfied with their IT groups,” said Steve Andriole, a senior consultant at Cutter Consortium in Arlington, Mass., and an IT management professor at Villanova University in Pennsylvania.

Since the economy’s rapid growth came to a halt in late 2000, IT managers have had to work more closely with business units to cost-justify technology investments, Andriole said. CIOs “have gotten smarter about defending their IT budgets,” he added.

Others were a bit more skeptical about the survey results. “This is a subject that goes a lot deeper than some of the simple correlations that (Forrester) built,” said Cedric Rhoads, former director of information systems at Matsushita Avionics Systems Corp., a Bothell, Wash.-based company that develops in-flight communications and entertainment systems for the airline industry.

Two months ago, Rhoads became a product manager for a new group that Matsushita Avionics formed to develop ground-based technologies like passenger personalization systems. Before that, he helped create an IT steering committee that includes executives from the company’s five major business units plus its chief financial and technology officers.

The steering committee is developing a framework for reviewing, funding and tracking IT projects, Rhoads said. Previously, the company’s IT department “had a history of working in the background,” he noted.

Alignment between business units and IT is an age-old problem, said John Parkinson, chief technologist at Cap Gemini Ernst & Young’s Americas division in Chicago. “Why would anybody be surprised by the (survey) results?” Parkinson asked. “This has been a problem for the 25 years I’ve been in the profession.”

One of the challenges is that applications built to support business operations are often rigid and can be “antithetical to agile behavior,” Parkinson said. “Businesses like to be able to change directions on a dime.”

Parkinson said IT departments should have some of their workers “live” with business units to get a better understanding of their requirements. In addition, IT managers have to be straightforward with business leaders “on what’s reasonable to expect from IT projects and what’s unreasonable to expect,” he said.