IT Management: Truth, Perception and Culture

Presenting a confident face on behalf of the culture of IT would go a long way toward changing perceptions.

Romi Mahajan

There has always been an argument for fostering a proactive, confident culture in which IT professionals reject the stereotypes that abound about them. Stereotypes of IT persist even today—a bunch of disconnected nerds who love gadgets more than humans, or slaves to the corporate machine whose only value is command and control.

Are these old prejudices, tired from overuse? Have people evolved and begun to realize the importance of the IT staff to the smooth functioning of the economy? Have perceptions changed drastically in the favor of IT professionals? There has been notable progress in some quarters, yet retrenchment in others. And what is truly irksome is that it’s some of the usual suspects trotting out the same shelf-worn arguments.

Let’s start the discussion with this unequivocal and balanced position: The modern enterprise-caliber IT staff powers the economy. It’s been stated before, but it bears repeating, that business and IT are largely at a point of singularity (see my June 2012 column). IT professionals are some of the most dynamic professionals in the business world. They not only power change, but they’re also often at the early edge of the learning curve.

On the other hand, IT has a severe marketing problem. Too few IT pros accept their sequestration as axiomatic and frame their arguments and careers in less-than-useful terms. In terms of self-promotion, IT gets an “A” on substance but an “F” on form. The results of this dichotomy create some adverse effects. Let’s examine a few as seen through the lenses of several different roles throughout the enterprise.

Developers: Some consider the rancor between developers and IT a holy war, a primordial opposition of two different cultures. Whether it’s that extreme or not, suffice it to say that the condescension developers show toward IT professionals is unfair and misplaced. While there’s little doubt the recognition of the development community is on the ascendance (and why shouldn’t it be?), there’s equally little doubt that—in a business environment—most of us experience the amazing work developers do through the systems that IT makes possible.

Furthermore, what is built must be maintained, tweaked, improved and made useful. These elements are the domain of IT. Developers deserve their due, but not at the expense of IT. The opposition is false and the damage is high, given the opportunity costs this schism creates. We’re all on the same team.

Executives: The C-level suite still seems to be thinking in a rhetorical mode with cost as it pertains to IT. C-level executives use words and phrases such as efficiency and ROI, effectively reducing IT to a beleaguered state and positioning IT pros as second-class citizens. No one wants to walk the halls of any corporation with a proverbial “I cost money” post-it affixed to his back.

To reduce the force of the attack, IT professionals should turn the tables on executives by using the same phrases. Proud IT professionals should ask, “If it’s efficiency you want, aren’t you glad you have us on the line to ensure the entire company’s systems are in constant operation, so every single employee can do her job without delay?”

Sales and Marketing: All the unfair stereotypes and epithets about IT are alive and well in sales and marketing. These are two areas that are communications-intensive and form-conscious. IT is invoked either as the punchline of a joke or as the foil to the Clark Kent-like sales guy.

When things go wrong (as they sometimes do), sales and marketing folks get furious. “Where’s my sales report? Why is my e-mail not working?” They blame IT as the keepers of the technology. Blaming is easy. Understanding the value others provide is tough.

From the IT Side

Let’s grab this opportunity to make a succinct case for the strengths and highpoints of IT professionals and the IT culture. Think of these points as being what IT can teach the rest of the enterprise.

  • Cooperation demonstrates confidence: No profession in the enterprise—with the possible exception of developers—has the confidence to share, teach and learn as much as IT. The IT culture is one of knowledge exchange and network intelligence (see my March 2012 column). Neither snarky competition with peers nor thinking “inside the firewall” is considered acceptable. Great solutions bubble up in IT because of the culture of sharing and cooperation. That’s a sign of incredible confidence and sustainability within the culture of IT.
  • Listening: The entire business world is abuzz with talk of “listening,” of dialogue instead of monologue, of understanding what customers want by erecting listening posts. In fact, much of the social Web is predicated on the notion of sharing and listening. Well, guess what group has been attentively listening from day one? If internal users are the customers, then an IT professional speaks to 10 customers a day. IT has to wend through the labyrinth of problems to find suitable and salutary exits. IT professionals listen with more attention than marketing or sales—two business functions that pride themselves on exceptional dialog.
  • Humility: In many parts of the enterprise, a muscular culture of boasting and alpha behavior is considered both an ingredient and an index of success. That’s not so much the case within IT. When’s the last time you heard an IT professional strut around arrogantly proclaiming greatness because of the uptime he provided you or the number of security threats he staved off in service of the company? It’s clear how much IT pros can teach us about what it means to, well, “do our jobs” without self-serving embellishments.

Stereotypes dissipate what would otherwise be natural empathy. They impede the development of a dynamic, cooperative, humane culture throughout the enterprise. Truth and perception often battle each other, the latter winning the lion’s share of the time. It doesn’t have to be that way, though.

IT professionals are the backbone of industry, and IT has evolved into a powerful culture. It just takes some understanding.


Romi Mahajan

Romi Mahajan is president of KKM Group. Prior to joining KKM, Mahajan was chief marketing officer of Ascentium Corp. A well-known speaker on the technology and media circuit, he serves on a variety of advisory boards and speaks at more than a dozen industry events per year.