Panel discusses gap between IT and executives

Ask IT what they need to do moving forward and they’ll say they want to be a revenue generator, but ask the business side what IT should doing and they’ll say cost reduction, said David Senf, research director of infrastructure services at IDC Canada Ltd.

A recent IDC survey found that the business sees twice as much strategic value in cloud computing than IT departments do, he said. And when it comes to service oriented architecture, IT will disagree with business sides that say it is “very strategic” and “the direction to go in,” he said.

Moderating a panel discussion on the disconnect between IT and C-level executives, hosted by Cogeco Data Services Inc. to complement its recent Angus Reid Public Opinion survey, Senf said the communication problem isn’t new. “We’ve been talking about this for years,” he said.

One survey that IDC runs on an ongoing basis compares line-of-business and IT across the same set of questions, he said. When asked about the time horizon within which IT makes decisions and buying purchases, the business side will estimate two to three years, while IT will say “a year at best,” he said.

When asked what metrics are used to gage how successful IT is, the business side will say IT judges itself by development and infrastructure costs, while IT will say the No. 1 success factor is “the satisfaction that the business gets out of what we do,” he said.

Senf often asks organizations how many breaches they have seen over the last 12 months. “What we find is there is an order of magnitude difference between what the execs think versus what those in the front line think. Those in the front line see 10 times as many breaches as they do in the top of the organization,” he said.

Panelist Stuart Paterson, storage specialist at Cogeco Data Services, said the communications gap is an organizational structure issue.

IT needs to learn the business to be able to communicate upstream what it is that they are doing and at the same time use that business knowledge to build something that is relevant to the company and “not something that is just really cool from an IT perspective,” he said.

But the difficulty with this process, he added, is that many people outside of IT will never understand IT because it changes so quickly and at the same time there are database engineers “who are never going to get out of that world – and that is why they are so good at what they do.”

Paterson suggested a “liaison position” is required to communicate information both upstream and downstream and “appropriately manage the IT department to make everything relevant for the company.”

Panelist Robert Smith, chief technology consultant at MaRS Discovery District, said IT needs to contribute to the innovation paradigm within the organization. “C-level people have a vision of the way things are going to be, but you have to be able to translate that vision into innovative ideas and innovative technologies,” he said.

“The problem is that paradigm has to be pushed from the bottom up as opposed to the top down,” said Smith. C-level execs will typically not hold their hand out for a solution or ask for advice, and if they do, it often comes long after they have already made a decision and developed a strategic plan, he said.

Panelist Paul Barker, editor of Cable Networking Systems Magazine, said the problem is communication and “unfortunately, it’s going to be up to IT to resolve the issues.”

“If you have a problem, go to the senior person in your organization and go with a plan and do your homework and maybe do their homework,” said Barker. “If the disconnect continues, then maybe it’s time to go somewhere else where you will achieve whatever goals you have,” he said.

But the onus is on the executives, Barker added. “The C-level suite has got away with far too much. I think as leaders they need to know exactly what their departments are doing … and they need to interact,” he said.

Panelist Gary Saarenvirta, CEO of Makeplain Corp., said it’s easy to build technology systems – what’s difficult is getting people to use them collaboratively together and articulate what they want. “There’s a change management exercise that has to happen across organizations,” he said.

“Business people are wired differently than IT people and there is this inability to understand each other … the more senior you are on the business side, the harder it is for you to relate to technology,” said Saarenvirta.

IT needs to articulate “what is the specific value that a piece of information or piece of technology brings to the business,” he said. If IT can explain their solutions by phrasing it terms of risks and benefits, that’s what the business understands, he said.

But in order to be able to explain the benefits to the business, IT needs to understand what the business direction is, said Paterson. “IT alone can’t deliver the solution because IT doesn’t know the business process” and senior leaders need to make to sure they explain what the business process is, he said.

IT needs to get their ideas out of the back room and on the table with C-level leaders to start executing them, said panelist Asif Bhaidu, director of IT at OgilvyOne. But until there is proper project management, IT solutions aren’t going to be delivered in a successful manner, he said.

“One of the things IT has been missing and we are starting to see now is project management,” said Bhaidu.

IT also needs to be more than just engineers or technicians – they need to understand the business, work with the organization and go beyond its boarders, including creating dialogue with peers in the industry, he said.

In a one-on-one interview after the event, Tony Ciciretto, president of Cogeco Data Services, said the responsibility for increasing communication between IT and C-level executives lies in both camps. But one of the things that IT can do better is making sure their objectives are well defined, he said.

A lot of the time, IT presents its objectives as what it means for IT, he said. “How it actually meets the metrics of the business is one of the biggest things. I think as soon as IT starts to talk that language, you are going to get a large amount of acceptance from the C-suites,” he said.

IT is typically called upon when there is a compelling event, which gets the attention of the C-level suites, said Ciciretto. “What IT needs to do is develop those compelling events and do a good job at articulating what it means to the business,” he said.

“When they define it, I think they are going to get that attention, so I think it’s got to be both ways, but I think IT needs to take that first step in order to get the attention by defining what those compelling events are,” said Ciciretto.

Cogeco’s recent Angus Reid Public Opinion survey suggests the communication gap is putting organizational data at risk.

Follow me on Twitter @jenniferkavur. 

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