Suits and Geeks: Can't They Just Get Along?

Ann All

With all of the talk about how important technology is to running a business today, you might assume business people have developed a healthy respect, if not downright fondness, for their IT departments. And vice versa.


Yet apparently the geeks and the suits are still the Hatfields and the McCoys of the enterprise, judging by the stream of heartfelt comments following a recent Slashdot post in which an anonymous reader wondered if the adversarial relationship between business and IT at his new job was common. Several recurring themes emerged. Business users are generally unappreciative of IT, wrote a number of folks. A reader called NoobixCube likens IT to plumbing:

... users of both have no idea how it works, basic knowledge of how to use it, and only care when it stops working. Users expect it to work like magic all the time, and the tech/plumber always has to put up with the disgruntled user's shit. ...

Echoing this point, rcoxdav writes that he has received poor performance reviews since he "was not running around all days fixing things." His managers simply didn't appreciate the preventive maintenance and testing that kept systems running smoothly.


Another frequently mentioned point: IT and business types just don't "get" each other. Writes robbak:

... Many suits have no knowledge of anything technical, and so make requests and demands that violate things like "logic" and the laws of physics. When the tech staff attempts to point this out, they are often told that they are being needlessly obstructive. Pleas that it is the universe that is preventing them fall on deaf ears.

Yet these kinds of cultural differences can go both ways. As Bill, Shooter of Bull points out, IT doesn't understand the business either. He writes:

... Sales, marketing, accounting, IT and management are all vital parts of a businesses life. They all have to function together to help a business grow or even stay afloat. Often IT derides the other parts because it doesn't understand their contribution, and measures them by their technical skills. ...

dg2fer thinks much of the tension between business and IT comes from asking IT folks to work for a manager with no understanding of technology. He writes:

... Would you as business man like to discuss your great business plan with a non-business Tech, who then decides which way to go? No, of course not -- he'll hardly understand what your point is at all. So, why do they force the Techs to discuss new hardware, network expansions and other, highly tech-related stuff with a business man? He won't understand why, won't see the connections, the big picture in the background. ...

I wrote about the importance of hiring CIOs who can communicate equally well with the business and IT earlier this month.


While these kinds of cultural disconnects appear to be common, most companies haven't been unduly concerned by them. But that was before Terry Childs, an allegedly disgruntled network administrator, locked everyone but himself out of San Francisco's computer system. Keith Jones, co-principal of Jones Dykstra and Associates, a computer forensics and expert witness firm, tells InfoWorld that for every hacked-off IT worker like Childs who makes it into the headlines, there are 98 others you don't hear about. And they can do a great deal of damage, says Brian Dykstra, one of Jones' partners.


Contributing to IT's growing dissatisfaction, according to the InfoWorld article, are companies that offshore IT jobs and/or pile on work with unreasonable demands or deadlines. And as the article points out, while you see lots of articles advising geeks to learn to communicate in terms the business can understand, you rarely see the same advice given to business people.


To avoid situations like the one in San Francisco, the article suggests documenting IT procedures, limiting access to sensitive systems and data and creating strong audit trails. More important, says Roy Saunderson of the Recognition Management Institute, companies need to do a better job of creating appropriate rewards for IT skills, trying to better understand IT's needs (ask them, he advises) and communicating the value of IT to the business.


The article mentions a company called Dimension Data that, among other things, offers time off to its techies for training so they can keep their skills sharp, made a video spotlighting cool technologies created by its geeks, and is introducing a tech "hall of fame" to honor IT workers. Says the SVP of human resources for the company's North American division:

When you think of any kind of recognition program for employees, you need to think first of your technical people, because they truly are the heartbeat of the organization. If your systems go down, everyone's productivity stops. It's the same as if the electricity goes off. If you take care of IT first, everything else will fall into place.

Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Oct 1, 2008 11:49 AM Paul Moseley Paul Moseley  says:
This article once again points out the differences between the It shop and the "business Suits". What are the commonalities of all parties? Good pay, challenging job, appreciation and a true unerstanding of what one side can do to support the other.Why not involve all parties at the decision table at the beginning of the process before upper management has been presented a solution that is non supportable. That way no one is embarassed and defensive.I have also found that it is much better to tell an IT person what you are trying to accomplish and the business value to the company. Many times they can supply solutions that are much cheaper and faster to implement. Everyone is a hero and the question from the IT staff to the suits will be how much money did we make instead of how many times did the computer fail. I think you will see a remarkable change in motivation, attitude and teamwork.Good luck. Reply
Oct 22, 2008 11:39 AM Tim Jones Tim Jones  says:
Very interesting perspectives. This is something that, as an IT project manager, I deal with all of the time.I recently ran across a very insightful article the discusses the psychological basis of the business versus IT conflicts:! Reply

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