IT subculture creates discord

Unless technology workers learn the language of business they’ll remain a support function not a strategic partner
By David Brown
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 06/28/2004

They are an essential part of most organizations, but many IT departments develop their own workplace subculture, leading to discord and conflict in everything from major projects to minor desktop problems, according to a recent study.

As many as 75 per cent of IT-related projects fail, and it could be largely due to the fact that IT people comprise a distinct subculture that is often in conflict with managers and front-line employees using technology, says Jeffrey Stanton, a professor at New York state’s Syracuse University. Stanton, a specialist in technology in the workplace, led a group of researchers who studied 12 New York organizations that were installing major IT projects.

“Occupational subcultures are groups of individuals who, based upon their occupation, develop their own language, values and behaviours that distinguish them from other groups within an organization,” he says. It is clear that many IT departments exhibit these characteristics.

“Results (from the research) also suggest that conflicts and dysfunctions do accompany communications and interactions between members of the IT professional subculture and other organizational members,” states the report,

IT Professionals at Work: Communication, Conflict and Adaptation Among Occupational Subculture.

“It is like when any two national cultures meet and maybe clash a little bit. It is not possible to tell who is right and who is wrong,” he says.

Problems arise because the two groups can’t communicate. “They don’t speak the same language,” he says. The loyalty to the other group can become strained and relationships eventually confrontational. “It is human nature for that kind of thing to happen,” he says. It leads to frustration and makes it difficult for the two sides to work together.

This explains why front-line employees end up “feeling like an idiot” when they call the IT help desk for assistance with desktop computing problems. One of the non-IT workers surveyed described the problem this way: “I don’t need to call someone on the phone to ask a question, then have them come in and go zoom, zoom, zoom, zip, zip, zip with a mouse and they’ve totally lost me so I’ve never learned anything.”

Keith Powell, a former CIO for Nortel, agrees IT workers often do end up separated from the rest of the organization. “It is an issue that companies are facing right now. You get a bunch of people who are technically very astute but they have some difficulty connecting with the business,” he says.

Although front-line employees feel frustrated when trying to get help solving technology problems, it is not usually from a lack of effort from the IT department. “I feel for the guy on the help desk,” Powell says. He is often being timed on how quickly the call can be handled, and is trying to solve something that seems like a simple problem to him and can’t figure out why the person with the problem is getting so upset.

But aside from better relationships between front-line staff and the IT help desk on day-to-day matters, improved communication and a better understanding of business goals should improve the chances of the IT department making meaningful, strategic contributions to the organization.

“There is a mismatch in communication and it is going to take the IT fraternity a massive amount of energy to try to educate their people to think (like the) customer, and talk in terms the customer wants to be talked in,” he says.

“HR plays a huge role” in making that happen, says Powell. At Nortel he had his own vice-president of HR to, among other things, help his IT staff become more attuned to the business. A strategy was drafted which identified what skills were needed. Development plans and pay scales were structured to encourage the development of those skills.

By sending bright, business literate IT people into the organization, it becomes easier for the IT function to get on the same page as the rest of the business units.

The communication barrier around IT has driven many organizations to find someone from outside IT to take the role of CIO, Powell says. “Business people get frustrated because they can’t see how all this money being invested in IT is developing the business.”

Powell himself had a background in operations before John Roth, CEO at the time, asked him to take over the IT operation to get a better understanding of what it could do for the company.

A lack of business understanding has made it difficult for IT professionals to move up the corporate ladder, says Barry Clavir, of the IT executive leadership development group the CIO Summit. A lot of IT people hit a glass ceiling because they lack formal business training, he says.

At a minimum the IT department should be able to respond effectively to any requests for changes to technology without needing an explanation of the business drivers. At that point, the IT department is still a service and support function. “But if they are more conversant with what is going on in the business they could be proactively making suggestions.”

To help more IT managers make the move to executive ranks, Clavir and the CIO Summit partnered with Toronto-based Ryerson University to create a 12-day IT Leadership Development Program. Starting in June, a Western Canadian version of the course will be offered in Calgary.

“Many people at management and mid-level management are not getting sufficient mentoring because their bosses are just too busy,” he says. This is a problem the course attempts to remedy by ensuring most of the content is provided from business professionals who share real life IT experiences with students.

There has been a fair amount of criticism of technology workers and accusations that IT is not strategic, says Tom Keenan, a professor at the University of Calgary who has taught technology for more than 30 years. He cited specifically a February article in

Harvard Business Review

that took IT functions and CIOs to task. “It has really wounded IT people to the core,” says Keenan, who teaches part of the IT Leadership Development Program and has been instrumental in bringing the Western Canadian version to the University of Calgary.

For 40 years IT people believed they were a strategic part of the organization and suddenly there has been a groundswell of criticism about what the IT function has been contributing, says Keenan, adding some IT people have been told they are “just like the janitor” — important for keeping the organization running but of little strategic import.

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