We Know Where We’re Going, But IT Can’t Get Us There


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Swell. You’ve developed your brand spanking new, 2009 customer relationship strategy. You’re poised to implement. But … IT can’t enable the work you want to do the way you want to do it. Which means you can’t do for customers what you intended.

Ready to blame your inability to move forward on IT? Well, not so fast, because more likely than not you’re stymied by a communication breakdown—a breakdown that you, on the business-side, helped cause.

Business often fails to communicate effectively to IT

Whenever HYM sees situations where IT is not enabling business-side process, we first look at the business side. Specifically, we look at how business folks have communicated—or not communicated—their technology support needs to IT. Unfortunately, the typical level of effectiveness of business/IT communication reminds me of my son’s favorite message tee-shirt: “I can see your lips moving, but all I hear is blah, blah, blah.”

Lots of words spoken but few understood. Worse yet, instead of trying to get at the root causes of the communication disconnect, business tends to blame IT for “not listening.” Of course, IT blames business back for “not knowing what you want.” Are either or both right? Unfortunately for the business side, where HYM lives, more often than not IT has truth on its side.

Poor process definition is often at fault

Here’s what so often occurs. When companies shift strategies to add new value to customers, business function leaders grasp that they have to realign their work (process) to match up with and deliver on these new strategies. The alternative is continuing to work as accustomed; which produces the same old customer outcomes; which in turn thwarts implementation of the new, more customer-friendly strategies. So business attempts to redesign process, but without clearly defining new technology support required to enable new process. So IT has to approximate or even guess what business needs, only to deliver new technology that’s off the mark—often way off the mark.
Business folk learning IT speak doesn’t begin to solve this problem, because business still doesn’t know what it needs. Hey, any language will do when you don’t know what you’re supposed to say.

Providing proper technology support is the last in a series of interrelated events

To put all this in context, becoming more customer-centric sets off a chain reaction. First, you align business strategies with customers, making sure you do the right thing by customers. Adopting new strategies, in turn, triggers process redesign, reshaping work to achieve new and different outcomes. And process redesign then creates new technology support requirements, requirements that business doesn’t fully understand and can’t articulate to IT, bringing us back to the communication breakdown.

We all know that a chain is only as strong as the weakest link. And here’s a classic case of a weak link—business to IT communication—takes down entire customer-centricity initiatives.

The business side needs to step up to the plate

IT can’t solve this problem. Think about it. How can IT tell business what to communicate to IT? To create a strong link, business functions have to start designing and documenting their work in far greater detail than commonly occurs; and then they need to communicate what information and what data-related functionality they needed at every process step—and especially for every transfer of work and information from person to person, function to function, and internal function to external stakeholders (including customers). All this is business-side work, not IT’s responsibility.

Hopefully, business-side readers have acquired some understanding of why it’s so important to the success of customer-centricity initiatives that business step up to the plate and take control of the process piece—including clearly communicating technology requirements to IT. And if you’re an IT reader, hopefully you have some ammunition to shoot back if business drops ill-defined technology support requirements in your lap.

Acquiring new skills

Where’s the skill set required for business to step up to the plate? In most companies, nowhere in sight. Especially because the work described involves office process, not better understood manufacturing process, and the two have little in common. But I won’t leave you hanging. Here’s a CustomerThink white paper I wrote regarding communicating process support requirements to IT.

And here’s another HYM white paper describing our Visual Workflow office process design system.

But let’s take one step at a time. First you need to appreciate how pivotal a role the business-side plays in identifying its technology requirements and presenting them to IT. Once you accept that, the rest becomes lots easier.


  1. Dick: thanks for bringing this up. The idiosyncrasies of Business/IT alignment seem to stay with us no matter how sophisticated our methods and tools. The underlying causes continue to be studied and debated.

    I have had the opportunity to work extensively on this problem this year and have travelled to several countries (Canada, India, Israel, South Africa) and learned that the problems you described transcend geographic boundaries.

    Part of the solution lies in better communication (never a bad thing!), but I believe that fundamentally, organizations are best served by cultivating senior IT executives who have varied experiences in the public and private sector, in and out of IT. In addition, it’s increasingly clear that IT managment must understand enterprise strategy first, and not simply depend on taking direction from others in the organization. This is particularly important for businesses in which IT is highly embedded in the product or service itself (think UPS, FedEx, Netflix, et al).

    The need to relieve the dearth of business competency in the ranks of IT executives has not been lost on academia, and there are several excellent graduate schools that have risen to the challenge. (I’ll give a shameless plug for my alma mater, The University of Virginia McIntire School of Commerce MS in Management Information Technology http://www.commerce.virginia.edu/grad/msmit/).

    Strategic-minded IT professionals will serve businesses better than IT-minded Line-of-Business executives.


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