IT Skills: Breaking Down the IT/Business Divide

Business prospers when IT and business goals are aligned, but getting there is more difficult than you’d think.

Joshua Hoffman

There have been many debates in the IT industry throughout the years. Which is the best networking protocol, the right Web browser, the optimal storage solution and the most effective OS? No debate has raged as long, with as much passion, or been as central to the profession as the debate of the role of IT versus “the business.”

It’s hard to pinpoint when this became an argument or an adversarial relationship. Over the years, though, as IT has become more critical to the underpinnings of business, the tension has escalated. At issue is who makes the decisions, what approach should be taken or which solutions are selected. Is IT simply a cost center or a means of creating value? And the most fundamental and enduring question: Does IT drive business or does the business drive IT?

That this ongoing and unresolved conflict continues in so many organizations isn’t good for anyone. IT and business initiatives would operate more efficiently and effectively if the tenor was one of collaboration instead of competition. There needs to be a desire to achieve the same goals. That desire likely exists, but most organizations simply need to reframe the debate.

How can companies reposition roles in a way that conveys not only the critical nature of IT services, but also the value those services can deliver to the bottom line? What language can help make discussions between IT and business unit managers more productive? And what resources are available to help IT professionals continue to develop their skills and play a larger role in their organization?

Cost vs. Value

One of the primary underpinnings of this conflict is whether IT is a cost to an organization. Is it simply the sum total of dollars spent on hardware, software, cables, power and so on? Does IT deliver financial value directly to the bottom line? Those are the primary questions.

IT can and often does save money for an organization. It also enhances business processes, which in turn saves more money. The realization and appreciation for the value of these efforts is, at its core, a marketing job.

In the TechNetMagazine article, “Reinventing IT in Difficult Times,” Romi Mahajan argues that IT is perceived by many as a commodity. The IT department has become a facilities organization, responsible for keeping the lights on and making sure the pipes work. In that case, it takes a conscious effort on the part of IT professionals to counter this perception and, for all intents and purposes, “to beat their own chests.”

It’s essential to tell the story in an accessible way. The language matters a great deal. Many IT professionals are prone to falling back on “techno-speak.” It’s easier to explain how or why something works the way it does in technical terms, and express value in terms of bandwidth, throughput or processing power, rather than demonstrable business value. This will likely cause business leaders to simply tune out in the same way IT managers might when they hear discussions about budget forecasting cycles.

The value of IT goes well beyond technical benchmarks. It’s better to express it in more human terms. What were people in your organization able to achieve as a result of new technology? Are your knowledge workers better connected to customers or partners? How is their job easier as a result of new tools? How much time was saved—time that can now be focused on more important goals?

Look upon learning to tell your story as a professional development goal. It’s easy to take a training program for the latest version of SQL Server or Exchange. Developing your ability to articulate the value of IT in human terms may seem a greater challenge, but it’s likely to pay more significant dividends in the long run.

Solution-Oriented Approach

Reframe the value of IT to help create a more meaningful dialogue with your business colleagues. You can deepen the nature of your working relationship with your business colleagues earlier in the process by helping to craft a solutions-oriented dialog around IT initiatives.

Another TechNet Magazine article, “IT Is the Real Breakthrough,” discusses how the best IT is silent. That is, IT shouldn’t be a solution unto itself. It should provide a better means by which to collectively achieve our goals. In other words, business users aren’t necessarily looking to send a message with Exchange more efficiently—they’re looking to communicate with their customers, colleagues and partners. They’re less concerned about the inner workings of SharePoint than they are with having access to the best business intelligence (BI).

Proactively engage your business colleagues in a discussion about the problems they’re looking to solve, and both sides can begin to think about IT as a tool with which to solve them. This may sound simple and obvious, but all too often there’s still a disconnect in this discussion. The business expresses a need for BI, for example, and IT deploys a BI platform. That isn’t a solution-oriented discussion. The business thinks it needs BI, and IT delivers the technical solution it feels is best.

This is where you and your IT colleagues have an opportunity to create a more meaningful relationship with your business partners. You can provide better solutions that more directly meet the underlying needs of the organization.

Start by asking questions that help identify the underlying motivation behind the business need for a BI platform. Are they looking to deliver key performance indicators to executive leadership? Do they need granular sales data for the mobile sales force? What kind of action is the business looking to inform based on the intelligence provided? If you put an increased focus on the “why,” in addition to the “what” and “how,” you can deliver a better solution and better value to your business partners.

Meet in the Middle

Overcoming this divide takes compromise. It’s only fair that you ask your business partners to meet you in the middle. There are a number of ways business leaders can work with you to close this gap. The best way to start is to involve you early and often in the organization’s strategic planning activities.

A lack of IT involvement in strategic planning is one of the common pitfalls that can feed the conflict between IT and business. IT departments are often caught by surprise when the business expresses its needs or expectations. And IT needs the opportunity to play a role in ensuring that any plan is feasible, realistic or even appropriate based on business needs.

Ensuring that IT is represented in strategic discussions at an early stage will not only give IT a better understanding of the business needs, but an opportunity to ensure that budgets and timelines are more accurate, and expectations more realistically set. Providing that early involvement is the biggest step your business colleagues can take to help overcome the IT/business divide.

This divide centers on the way business and IT communicate with each other, how discussions are framed, the vocabulary used and so on. As a result, it’s not a problem solved by a tool, utility or certification. There are soft skills: the way we communicate and interact with our colleagues, for instance. And there are resources available to help engage you in this effort to better align IT and business goals.

This is a human problem, deserving of a human solution. Networking, coaching and mentoring across both sides of the divide can be immensely valuable in closing the gap. Does your organization have a mentoring or coaching program in place? If not, you can help start one and act as a catalyst for better communication and understanding. You can ensure that mentoring and coaching take place across disciplines, so that IT professionals can learn from business partners and vice versa.

Peer groups, including those enabled through social-networking channels like LinkedIn, are also a valuable asset. Soft skills are developed experientially. Sharing positive experiences of strategies and tactics that have worked well, as well as those that haven’t, can be a great help in professional development. Continuing education programs, such as those offered through noted management schools and other universities, can also help develop these skills.

The Microsoft Business Web site points to a number of published resources, including the Business Insights newsletter. This includes white papers, discussions with technology management experts and so on. One article in particular, “The Accidental Benefits of Cost-Benefit Analysis,” has some applicable lessons, although it was published a number of years ago.

A list of resources for IT professionals, regardless of the topic, wouldn’t be complete without an actual tool. Should you feel the need to dive into a utility, why not start with a Return on Investment or Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) calculator? These tools, such as the TCO calculator available for Windows Azure (the calculator located on the right side of the page), can provide a practical starting point for discussions between business and IT.

The divide between IT and business has existed for far too long. The good news is that it’s a conflict with a clear resolution. This is a gap you’re clearly capable of closing. Take proactive steps to demonstrate the value of your IT investments, ensure a solution-oriented approach, and get involved early on in the strategic planning of an organization. You and your IT group can continue to play a critical role in helping your organization succeed.

Joshua Hoffman

Joshua Hoffman is the former editor in chief of TechNet Magazine. He’s now an
independent author and consultant, advising clients on technology and audience-
oriented marketing. Hoffman also serves as editor in chief of, a site
devoted to growing and enriching the market research community. He lives in New York City.