Why suits don't get IT

In most firms, there's a perpetual stand-off between techie staff and their lay colleagues, as a new MT survey confirms. How can the geek gap be bridged?

by Rhymer Rigby
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

In Douglas Coupland's latest novel jPod, the lack of empathy - indeed outright enmity - between IT and management is one of the main themes. At the videogame company where the book is set, Steve, the marketing director (an ex-Toblerone man) is portrayed as an out-of-touch managerial fool who wants to insert an ?entirely extraneous turtle into an otherwise excellent skateboard game because his estranged son happens to like them. Naturally, he is hated by those whose job it is to build the game.

Later, in a tour de force of IT wish-fulfilment, the hapless Steve is kidnapped by a Triad-like gang, put to work in a Chinese sweatshop ?making fake Nikes, and force-fed heroin until he is hooked. Think about that the next time you share a lift with someone from your own IT department.

It may be fiction, but Coupland is an author who knows his geeks and it's probably pretty close to what people who code for a living really think of their corporate masters. And the antipathy usually runs the other way, too Ð the relationship between managers and techies is axiomatically dysfunctional. They just donÕt get each other.

Or do they? To find out, MT and the British Computer Society got together to commission a survey of IT staff and management executives over the summer. The telling results (we will return to the details shortly) suggest that the gap is real enough. For a summary, see the panel 'Poll position', p51.

Throwing punches from the opposite corner to Coupland is Nicholas Carr, former editor of the Harvard Business Review, with his Does IT Matter?

The book grew out of the rather more bluntly named article he wrote for the HBR, entitled 'IT Doesn't Matter'. It doesn't matter, Carr contends, because of its ubiquity. The advantages it confers on you are available to your competitors. IT has become a commodity. In the future, he argues, businesses will buy IT from outside suppliers in the way that they buy electricity - and with the same enthusiasm.

These then are the two extremes of the great geek/suit divide. One side believes that the other doesn't get IT, to the point that enforced opiate addiction would be an improvement. The other shrugs and says: 'WhatÕs there to get?', while making a mental note to dial 0800-Offshore and find themselves some more compliant, less costly geeks from somewhere like Bangalore or Beijing.

The 400-plus respondents to our survey certainly seem to mirror this appropriately binary scenario. When those in IT were asked how well general management understood the ?impact of IT on the organisation, 26.5% answered 'adequately', while 32.7% answered 'not very well' and 8.8% answered 'badly'. In a similar vein, only 18% said they would characterise the board's attitude to IT as 'trust' (by way of contrast, 23% chose 'apathy').

The secular managers were marginally more forgiving, although they were pretty tepid about IT's understanding of overall strategy and, again, found it hard to characterise the relationship between IT and middle management as one of trust - only 13.7% did.

David Clark, CEO of the British Computer Society, describes this as an age-old problem, adding that IT fails to deliver 'newly relevant skills to make their mark with senior management' and that senior management are 'reluctant to engage fully with IT'

Nor is this just a UK phenomenon. A recent survey of US executives by Accenture, although perhaps a bit more positive, was still not exactly evidence of an IT-management love-in. It found that three out of four IT ex-ecutives felt they understood their company's business extremely or very well. However, less than half of non-IT executives credited their IT counterparts with having a very good understanding of the company's business.

Bill Pfleging, a US-based computer and web consultant and co-author of the pithily named The Geek Gap: Why business and technology professionals don't understand each other and why they need each other to survive, believes the differences are highly cultural. 'It's not so much a case of one side being bad and the other being good. It's different backgrounds, different cultures, different goals at work. In some ways it's pretty amazing that you find these people in the same company.'

Amusing horror stories abound and serve to illustrate this point. One involves a manager calling in a techie to ask if his PC can be made to tell him what the stock market is up to. Nothing doing, says the geek; but he'll put something in that provides real-time market data on the screen. 'No,' says the suit, 'I mean I want my computer to tell me what it's doing. Like the computers on Star Trek do.'

But when it comes to not getting it, techies can be just as bad. Another tale concerns a group of geeks lolling around at the back of a corporate presentation and joking about how little they care about how much money they make Ð the suits trouser the lot and 'never share it with us'. Amazingly, it had never occurred to them that the share options they were granted each year were a form of 'sharing'. Hint: the clue is in the name.

Of course, these are entertaining worst cases, the outcome of situations where neither side will make any effort. But, explains Pfleging, these problems are intrinsic and stem from the kinds of people the two groups are. Geeks are problem-solvers: they like puzzles and think mathematically, analytically and logically. 'TheyÕre the ones who were 10-year-olds down in the basement taking apart the family radio to see how it worked.'

And, ultimately, geeks are very goal-?orientated. When they reach the goal - which is, say, a functioning website or database - theyÕre not interested any more. Unless, of course, it breaks down - then they have a new puzzle to play with.

The suits are the reverse. Whereas the geeks are all hard skills and problem-solving, managers have emotional intelligence. Their abilities lie in influencing others in areas such as sales and marketing, in negotiating and persuading. Ironically, they become interested in an IT product only when it's finished and working. And, naturally, this is the exact moment that the geeks lose all interest in it.

If this fundamental disconnect is not addressed, things quickly de-teriorate. One side wants things done as quickly and cheaply as possible and doesn't under- stand (or care about) how it's done. It is not ?interested in the process and couldnÕt care less about the technology. The other side is interested in nothing but the process and the technology. If it is told itÕs spending too much, its knee-jerk reaction is to rail against the business's lack of vision.

Often, the two sides don't respect each other, says Pfleging. 'They don't trust each other and they don't even like each other. Suits will let a year-long project run and then pull the plug a month from completion. Geeks look askance at suits - they're money-grubbing corporate clones. Suits look at geeks and see people who are enamoured of shiny objects and want to play with them.' And so it goes.

Of course, there are some businesses where these things are aligned. 'Most people would accept that effective IT can make a real difference,' says Paul White, director of Microsoft Dynamics Product Group UK, adding that the past 15 years have done much to close this gap. 'You could apply the same thinking to sales and marketing or sales and finance. To work well, any company needs a variety of functions - and if they unite around a common cause, then it works like a premiership side.'

This view is true to some extent, argues Servan Keondjian, CEO of games developer Qubesoft and a former Microsoft employee. 'It does depend on the company.' He believes that if you are talking about a genuine software company that understands that the value is in the IP, you will have alignment. Here he cites Adobe, Google and, of course, Microsoft.

In a sense, this might seem self-evident. It's a software company and therefore the IT is the only thing. But, adds Keondjian, this is quite a US thing. 'In my experience, you don't see many real software companies over here. In the UK the 'software company' is often ?providing some B2B solution or database and management doesnÕt care how itÕs done, so coders feel vulnerable. That's why you get a brain drain to the US.'

And, if this is true of our 'unreal' software companies, it goes doubly for the economy as a whole. Even so, you donÕt have to be a software company for IT to be utterly integral and central to your mission. If you take a business like Amazon, well, selling books - which is where the company started out - is not necessarily an obvious tech business.

Similarly, an intriguing recent example of the high-tech company/low-tech product approach is a Canadian business that calls itself 1-800-GOT-JUNK (1800gotjunk.com).

As its name suggests, these 21st-century rag-and-bone merchants will remove your un-wanted junk. But where the company differs is that its professionalisation of this decidedly ungeeky industry has been possible only through the use of technology. It operates a 24-hour computerised call centre and an on-line booking service and uses web-enabled truck phones; it even boasts a proprietary computer platform called JunkNet.

Thanks in part to these, it has grown by 500% in the past three years and now does business in Canada, the US and Australia and has opened its first UK franchise. Founder and CEO Brian Scudamore says he has been able to realise his ambitions only through the use of technology. 'Our head of IT is on our leadership team and is integral to all the future planning we do for the company. Without IT, we literally would not have a business.'

OK, but perhaps start-ups are a little different: they don't have all the baggage. What can an established business do? Well, for starters, everyone needs to recognise that the two camps are different and always will be. But they can usefully make an effort to learn a little bit more about each other. The suits could learn enough to, say, meaningfully describe the problem they are experiencing to their helpdesk. The techies could learn something about the company they work for - perhaps enough to understand where their salaries ultimately come from.

However, cautions Shaun Fothergill, CA Technology Services' UK and Ireland IT strategist (who is writing a book called Business is from Mars, IT is from Venus), fine sentiments are one thing and genuine- change is another. 'I've been to loads of conferences where IT says it needs to speak to business and business says it needs to speak to IT. I've probably heard this sentiment every year for the last 25 years and it hasn't happened. Business may as well be speaking Russian and IT Swahili.'

To be fair, he adds that some small advances have been wrought by the dot.com boom and new regulations such as Sarbanes-Oxley, but a mixture of cultural differences, legacy issues (both legacy IT systems and legacy managers) means that the two sides still often need a translator to communicate effectively.

So is the problem insoluble? Perhaps not. In fact, it may solve itself. 'Traditionally,' says IT usability guru Jakob Nielsen, 'management didn't understand computers, and geeks didn't understand business. No wonder the two couldn't communicate.' But, he continues, 'modern managers have some understanding of computers, and modern IT people have some understanding of business. So I am somewhat hopeful for the future.'

Indeed, Nielsen's hope may be pretty realistic. These days, virtually any graduate who joins a business will 'get' IT to some extent. As users, young managers are likely to be comfortable with technologies as diverse as instant messaging, wikis, forums and social networks. They don't need to be told or taught. And this process has been going on for years now.

The 'silicon ceiling' -  the age above which most people don't get IT Ð rises every year. It used to be 25; now, it's probably closer to 50, and managers who get their PAs to print off their e-mails are a fast-retiring breed. 'We still have legacy managers,' says Keondjian 'but there's always new blood coming in. It's only a matter of time.'

Keondjian is absolutely right: some day soon we'll all be geeks.

 

MT's 'geeks vs suits' poll looked at more than 400 managers in businesses of all sizes, both within and without the IT function, and asked them their views on how IT understood business and how business understood IT. It told us that thereÕs a long way to go before the geeks and suits are on the same (web) page.

When asked what word they thought best characterised the board's attitude to IT staff, 41% of IT managers said 'acceptance', 23% said 'apathy' and 12% said 'scepticism'. Similarly, more than 50% of IT people said senior management saw IT's role as a support service. But since only 70% of IT managers saw their role as fundamental and strategic, perhaps thatÕs not surprising.

Management was rather less scathing about IT than vice versa. Nonetheless, 49% said their attitude to their own IT department was acceptance rather than trust, with scepticism second at 21%. More promisingly, 44% said IT was fundamental and strategic - almost level with the 48% who saw it as a support service.

Tellingly, when asked what changes they might make, the largest respondent group in each case appeared to blame the other: 27% of IT managers said they would improve the general managementÕs communications with the rest of the business, while 22% of general management said they would improve ITÕs understanding of the wider business.

Finally, the world of IT is probably not the place to go looking for (straight) workplace romance: 87% of our respondents who worked in IT were male.

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