5 Oct 2012

CIT’s Problem 4: Shift in the Balance of Power

In the early years of IT, the IT department occupied a strong position within the company. Today, this power has shifted to the business community.
In essence, IT failed. The IT department weakened its position in analytical and conceptual matters. They neglected somewhat this area and retracted to a purely technological role. The abandoned area has then been conquered by the business community. How did this happen?
In its early years, the IT department had quite a lot of power. They defined projects accordingly to plans and executed projects from their very beginning until the implementation. Unfortunately, the business community was not really involved during software development projects. The software wasn’t able to deal with the specific practical issues as they were encountered in the field. The business community wasn’t very satisfied. This situation is a factor that will play a role later on.
Working with information is very labour intensive. Companies seek to replace these human activities by computer processing. They seek to automate the information processing as much as (reasonably) possible. Consequently, the need for automated information systems increases rapidly. While new systems have to be built, the growing number of existing IT systems must be managed. These systems have to evolve and sometimes to be replaced. Clearly, the volume of work for the IT department increased over the years.
IT departments were born in the last several decades. While the IT departments grew, they had to organise themselves. They had also to become professional. They had to develop IT competencies in a discipline, IT, which itself is evolving. At the same time, the IT departments had to cope with a huge increase of work volume. All this puts a very huge pressure on the IT department. Moreover, software development is complex and projects are risky by nature. This was a difficult period for the IT departments. The results may not have been very satisfying.
Meanwhile, the business community is working for years with computers. Most possess their own computer. They have also worked with plenty of end-user software. The business community sees only the surface of IT. This is what the market presents to them, the hardware, the content on the screen and the user experience. They got accustomed only with a certain facet of IT. Their experience is rather one-sided. Consequently, the business community has a distorted picture of corporate IT. The reference belief system driving their thinking, their attitude, their expectations and their judgement is created based on this biased picture. (see post “CIT’s Problem 2: Business Distorted Picture of IT”).
The IT department couldn’t propose solutions that, from a functional point of view, suited the business community. Since this approach, where the IT department had all the power didn’t deliver the expected results, didn’t work, it’s time for another approach.
The real and main cause, in my opinion, was the pressure and the lack of involvement of the business community. It was not the fact that the IT department was in a leading position.
IT is considered as a technological domain. Someone, knowing the business must think about what the problems are and how they should be solved. The business community is more familiar with IT, the business community gains in self-confidence. They don’t wait for the IT department anymore and will take the initiative. Managers and subject matter experts formulate the needs and desires of the business community. Business people define the business requirements. Once the demand is formulated, the IT department is then expected to use its technologies to create the demanded solution.
Practically, this implies that the business community identified needs, analysed it and imagined a solution, at least the main lines of it. The IT department doesn’t do this anymore.
The business community cherish the idea that if they formulate the demand, they are more likely to get what they want and that his will solve the need. Although this sounds logic, it is an illusion.
Many IT people are techies. They just love technologies. They feel good with IT being considered as a technological domain. This reinforces the belief of the business community.
This approach is easier for the IT department. They don’t have to decide anymore what must be implemented. The IT department have now only to focus on implementing the solutions demanded by the business community. In the past, they were criticised for implementing inappropriate solutions. Now, if the demand is doesn’t suit, it is not their responsibility. The more work done by the business community, the lesser the IT department has to do. It is easier to simply comply on expectations rather than changing the expectations based on deeper beliefs. But there is another reason. Since the IT solutions are always larger and more complex, it becomes more and more complex to adapt or to expand it. It is easier to only adapt the IT solutions accordingly to the business demands rather than clean things up and to engineer the whole.
The analyst is often under pressure. He/she receives the demand of the business. Possibly, he/she receives a whole description of the desired solution. Or, he may ask the business representative(s) what they need to be built. To satisfy the business community, the analyst records what the business community expresses as needs, demands and requirements. He/she refines this and makes sure the demand is consistent, coherent and clear. Then he/she passes it to the developers. The role of the analyst is downgraded to the role of “bridge” or liaison between the business community and the developers.
Since the IT analyst is under pressure, he is not likely to verify the statements of the business community. The shortest way to satisfy the customer is to respond to his demands and to do what the client expects. There is no time to do a broader and deeper investigation. Although, this is part of the role of analyst, the other parties do not expect this from the analyst. The business community describes the solution they need; this is what they will get. The IT projects rely on this.
The business community starts more and more to be active in this area. Indeed, they determine the needs and by, elaborating the requirements and specifications, they also largely determine the future solution. They also take functional decisions and decide what information is given to the IT project when. They heavily influence the whole approach and project. The business community have their say in the priorities of development, in the assigned resources and in the delivery dates. Today, they lead the dance in this area.
The IT department remains focused on the technological skills and continue to develop them. The competencies in non-technological aspects and competencies of the IT department draw lesser attention. The analysis and design that is done by the IT analyst are limited to a deepening of the ideas already expressed by the business community while respecting the scope defined by the business community. Within IT projects, the most analysis and (functional) design is gradually abandoned.
So far, the life of the IT department has never been easy. Corporate IT struggles to deliver successful projects. It is not surprisingly that the business community is disappointed. Besides the disappointment, failed projects have an economical cost which may even put the company in danger.
And the business has many questions about the IT department. Why is commercial software so intuitive and flexible and why is the software produced by our IT department so clumsy? Why is the quality of the company’s software systems lower than the quality of commercial software? Why does the IT department seem to make things always so difficult? Why can commercial software be released at a high speed and is the IT department so slow to deliver? Why is it so easy to go to a shop to buy a tablet PC whereas getting it by the IT department takes several months? The business community doesn’t understand the way the IT department works. It is a world that that is completely different than the world of the business. The business community talks business, while the software developers talk about technologies.
The balance of power continues to shift. The business community is still acquiring new rights. The position of the IT department continues to crumble.

  • The business community assigns a product owner to a software application. He/she is responsible already from the start of the project that will create it.
  • The IT department has to serve the business. It is dependent of the business community.
  • The business community is the owner of the solutions.
  • The business community funds the IT projects.
  • In some companies, IT projects with business purposes are called business projects. These projects have simply an IT component in it. It’s logical, that these “business projects” are directed by the business community. IT projects are hi-jacked.
  • The IT department is considered as a cost centre.
  • In some companies, the CIO is not at the table to define the company’s strategy.
  • Some IT departments are directed by CIO’s chosen among business managers.

The IT department continues to lose its authority. Its position has been completely undermined.
The question is whether the business community has the competencies needed to assume its new authority? Is it able to assume the responsibilities that come with its new position?
Failing projects, the communication gap, the client-supplier relation, the rising authority of the business community and the difference between both worlds are factors that create a climate of distrust.
Consumerism is widespread in our society. When something doesn’t suit us, when something is broken or when we can’t deal with something, we tend to get rid of it. We don’t spend time in analysing it, in trying to understand it and trying to solve it. We are used to buy, to throw away or to replace things. We don’t solve issues anymore. We try to buy solutions. We externalize problems, responsibilities, risks and services, for example by outsourcing. The business community looks somewhere else for solutions.
If the company doesn’t trust its own IT department, if it can’t rely anymore on it and if it is looking for solutions elsewhere, then the company has a really big problem and it has failed in its IT.
Axel Vanhooren.
Freelance IT Consultant

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