Why business leaders ignore you

Why business leaders ignore you…

David Moschella

You’ve surely heard these complaints many times before: Too often, IT people speak in impenetrable jargon, love technology for its own sake and aren’t grounded in what really matters to the business. While these characterizations may be stereotypes, they’re not totally unfair.

But the other half of the story isn’t heard nearly as often. Business people need to be much more fluent in IT. The reality is that whether business leaders are in sales, marketing, product development, customer service, finance or just about any other company function, they need to have a well-grounded sense of what IT can and cannot do, and this requires some actual knowledge. Unfortunately, many business people simply don’t have enough of it.

IT people often get the blame for the lack of strategic IT alignment, for projects that don’t meet real business needs and for the vast cultural divide that can exist between the IT organization and the rest of the company. But in my experience, business people are at least equally at fault, and often more so. In many companies, the underlying culture is one in which business leaders can get away with ignoring what’s going on in IT.

The reasons for this are pretty clear. Working life is already tough enough, and for most people, learning about complex IT systems isn’t exactly easy or fun. In addition, IT systems can take many employees, especially executives, out of their comfort zones and expose gaps in their skills and knowledge that many of them don’t want to acknowledge. It’s much easier to just believe, for example, that determining the way IT applications should be structured or managing the inevitable trade-offs between IT cost and functionality are really just problems for the IT group.

Business people can get away with this nonsense because in most companies, they shape the company culture and have most of the actual decision-making votes. Consequently, if a company culture emerges where most forms of IT complexity are instinctively viewed as an IT problem, there’s often not much that the IT department can do. IT management lacks the authority to overcome what can amount to an unspoken conspiracy in which business people essentially say to one another, “I won’t get too involved in this IT stuff if you don’t.”

These underlying attitudes explain why so many executives found Nicholas Carr’s IT Doesn’t Matter stuff so irresistible. It’s exactly what they wanted to hear, because it reinforced their subconscious wish to be able to shun any real responsibility for IT decision-making. If IT doesn’t matter, then why should I bother to learn about it?

Of course, this is all just a form of denial. In most companies, IT matters more than ever, and business leaders usually can’t do their jobs without a deep understanding of what’s going on in IT. If more CEOs would simply stand up and demand such knowledge, the jobs of IT professionals would get easier and, more importantly, companies would have a much better chance of showing why IT really matters after all.

David Moschella is global research director at CSC Research & Advisory Services, a Computer Sciences Corp. company. Contact him at dmoschella@earthlink.net.

…and networkers ignore them

Virginia Robbins

My friend and I shielded our eyes from the setting sun as we waited for the graduation ceremony for the University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business to begin.

She had just returned from six months in a new position as a COO in Hawaii, and I was interested in what life was like in paradise. After covering the standard topics — air conditioning (not used by the natives), flowers (stunning) and gas prices (lower than in San Francisco), she asked me if I had read IT Doesn’t Matter.

Yes, I had read the Harvard Business Review article. Moreover, it felt as if every technology publication had run an editorial, commentary or other critique of the piece with the same basic response: IT does matter, because the technical leadership required for success is not yet a commodity.

My friend turned toward me, threw up her hands and fervently agreed. Her company was small but had a network spread across multiple locations. To her, it seemed impossible to find and retain a good business-focused technology manager.

She had tried a number of consultants, and every one of them was primarily interested in selling her hardware. The staffers that she had managed to retain were the relatives of key customers, and while they did know a great deal about the business, they seemed to have a difficult time keeping the e-mail servers virus-free and the consultant fees to a level that she felt was affordable.

I wished her luck.

Of all the various tech managers, the group that always seems to pride themselves in not understanding the business is networking managers. Kind, sensitive, business-savvy help desk managers, upon earning their MCSEs, morph overnight into arrogant, “it works on my equipment,” technocratic despots.

OK, before you start e-mailing me, not all of them make this transition. But even I did for a while, until I saw the error of my ways.

With the sun still in her eyes, my friend turned to speak to our hosts and I began to wonder why this happened — why do so many good network managers appear to lose their business savvy?

Maybe it’s all that time spent patching servers, scanning TechNet and battling spam only to find out that they have accidentally blocked key e-mails from a new client at the law firm of Abreast, Skin and Hambrixxx. Or maybe it’s because they have received one more hastily approved security request to add 27 temporary employees to the network today, only to have the project canceled and the temps sent home by noon.

I hope that as CIO I never have to ask my networking managers to do anything that I wouldn’t do. I hope that I am able to encourage them to continue learning how and why our business makes money. Moreover, I realize that I need to make sure that in between the patches and security requests, I include my network managers in the same business briefings as the development managers.

Virginia Robbins is CIO and managing director at Chela Education Financing in San Francisco. Contact her at VRobbins@chelafin.org.

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