Don’t call them customers: From alignment to fusion

pc-tug-of-war-120.jpg“Alignment” was always an ugly word. I’m not surprised IT executives want to replace it.

At Computerworld U.S.’s Premier 100 IT Leaders conference in Orlando this week, managers from Golden Gate University in San Francisco and petroleum company Hess Corp. were described by our sister publication as “activist CIOs” who want to not only support the business but drive it, even if it means leading non-IT projects. The Hess Corp. CIO went so far as to ban his staff from referring to their fellow workers as customers or users. He suggested “company-mates” (cringe!) and preferred the idea of “fusion” over alignment. Suddenly IT management jargon threatens to outnumber the volume of IT product jargon.

If IT doesn’t matter, do semantics? They can certainly influence the culture. If they didn’t, people wouldn’t get so hung up on the difference between a title like admin assistant and a title like executive assistant. Or business units that go from being called “promotions” to marketing. Forbidding IT staff to call fellow employees customers or users is also an attempt to break down the us-and-them mentality that pervades a lot of enterprise environments. When you think of them more as peers, you become less of an order-taker and more a true partner, someone who shares their priorities and goals.

The reality, of course, is that most vendors and other suppliers in the IT industry will continue to refer to those co-workers as users or customers, as will much of the existing IT management literature. The impact of the Hess Corp. CIO’s policy is to create a local dialect rather than changing the language of technology professionals within businesses. It also overlooks some very real differences in the level of expertise and stewardship (of corporate data policies, data protection and so on) that are primarily the purview of IT professionals. In many cases IT departments set up the systems but are not, in fact, the ones using them. They are still “them,” no matter how much CIOs and their direct reports exercise their powers of empathy.

In the same way, business units are set up for a reason: to centralize areas of specialization and to focus on specific objectives. Achieving those objectives will require collaboration with IT, and the idea of fusion might do a lot to ensure the partnership is a successful one. Without additional education or experience, though, I think it will be the rare CIO who is more proactive about advancing the interests of the finance department, for example, than the CFO.

Activist CIOs may be put in charge of non-IT projects because they have demonstrated a capability in project management that transcends their area of expertise. What needs to happen in those cases is for the techniques or strategic approaches to be passed on to the people who are nominally in charge of those non-IT responsibilities. This is the difference between managing and leading. When you lead, it doesn’t matter what you call the people you are trying to help. They’re just grateful to be members of your team.

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