IT/Business Alignment Problems Lead to Bigger, Badder Data Silos

Loraine Lawson
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Tensions Between IT and Business Leadership Force New Approach to Delivering Technology

“IT power grab: Should you be a Machiavellian manager?” challenges a recent Computer World headline.

Based on a recent e-book by analyst Tina Nunno, “The Wolf in CIO's Clothing: A Machiavellian Strategy for Successful IT Leadership,” the article questions the current “IT as a service provider” model. Nunno contends that CIOs abandon that approach and instead “grasp the reins of leadership instead.”

I’m sure it’s a fascinating book, but I think it’s a bit odd to suggest that Niccolò Machiavelli is an appropriate role model for internal IT. That has to be one of those things that sounds better in a book, but works poorly in the real world.

Machiavellian tactics might work in a win/lose situation such as traditional politics (if that’s really the way you want to operate), but that’s not the position IT or even the CIO holds within an organization. With technology, the situation is more likely to be win-win or lose-lose, because it’s too easy for business users to buy their own solutions. Take, for example, shadow data silos. According to a 2014 CIO Magazine report, 40 percent of CIOs believe shadow IT is on the rise.

“Data shadow systems have been prevalent for years at most companies, so why are the CIOs noticing now?” points out Rick Sherman, a data expert who writes at the Data Doghouse. “Likely because in the past, most data shadow systems were built using spreadsheets, so CIOs would ignore them or think that when IT offered better BI tools, then the business people would ‘come to their senses.’ Well, they didn’t.”

Instead, business users shifted to the cloud, where they could create new shadow data systems with new data or by pulling on-premise enterprise data into the cloud.

The problem is larger than just another shadow spreadsheet, he cautions:

Not only are business groups getting cloud apps, but they are also acquiring data discovery tools like Tableau and QlikView on their own. These are terrific tools, but when a business group gets them without IT involvement, another tier of data shadow systems arises.

It’s a bad situation, and the business users aren’t the only ones creating it. As Informatica’s Stephan Zoder points out in a recent blog post, sometimes IT decides to “fix data for the sake of fixing it” without talking to the business. He lists several situations where this created major problems with business users.

“IT and business leaders should take note that a misalignment due to lack OR disregard of communication is a critical success factor,” he writes.

I don’t think strong-handed tactics by CIOs will fix this. I have an alternative hypothesis: The best indicator of success, even with big data, will be how well IT and the business trust each other.

We talk about IT/business alignment, but before that can happen, each side has to trust each other. The business needs to know that IT will work with them, not against them; IT needs to know the business will work to support official systems, rather than circumvent company data management or systems.

I suspect the reverse is also true: When business users really trust IT, senior IT leaders can leverage data to drive real change.

A recent McKinsey & Company article explores how CIOs can do just that — not through Machiavellian tactics, but by reimagining their role as the chief executive of an information business.

“Like any chief executive, the CIO should bring vision, direction, and organization to the company’s Big Data investment priorities,” the article states. “That means engaging internal customers on their biggest challenges while attracting the best talent and suppliers; most important, it means being accountable for execution and results.”

To me, that supports seeing IT as a service provider, even when it comes to data. Machiavelli may offer CIOs political tactics for grabbing power, but the CIO success stories I’ve read suggest top IT leaders focus on collaboration and partnerships.

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