Want an IT, Business Partnership? Proximity Can Help

Ann All

There's plenty of good, general advice that should improve the odds that technology initiatives will succeed. Don't underestimate the need for change management. Start with clear goals and define what "success" will look like. Establish benchmarks. Communicate clearly and often with business users. Don't skimp on user training.


It occurs to me it's easier to do all of these things if IT staff are co-located with the business users they serve. I know many IT folks prefer a highly centralized IT structure because it's easier to secure and support (and let's be honest, control) technology. Not to mention, they can indulge in geekspeak with their IT colleagues to their hearts' content. But too often I think communication suffers, and sometimes an "us vs. them" mentality is the result.


Though she's writing about business intelligence in a blog post for Information Management, Jill Dyche's point applies to just about any ongoing tech project. She describes a consulting gig with a large bank's BI organization in which they followed her suggestions, including hiring additional skill sets, replacing an aging data warehouse platform, formalizing data management, creating BI policies, creating a BI "road show" to inform users and creating a wiki for communication.


And yet, users still didn't come to the BI organization for reports. Dyche writes:

Indeed the team had done a lot of the right things, including communicating their progress. But they fundamentally didn't to change how they interacted with the business. In fact, by announcing a new organization and a new set of policies they had unwittingly built a wall around themselves. Then they sat back and waited for business users to engage them.

If tech projects are to deliver true business value, IT personnel must communicate regularly with business folks, and not just at the beginning of initiatives. The title of her post, "You Need to Get Out More," sums it up. Says Dyche:

Only by "keeping it warm" with your business constituents can you truly establish yourself as a cross-functional service that delivers regular business value.

Holla. Must IT pros work alongside their business colleagues to do this? No. But it sure makes it easier.


Two CIOs I recently interviewed, the University of Nevada, Reno's Steven Zink and Wells Fargo's George Tumas, told me co-locating IT and business staff had yielded great benefits for their organizations.


Zink told me he has about 100 staffers "most people would say were IT" and another 100 who work in other areas. He said:

There is no clear line between IT and what would be lines of business in the private sector. Even in support areas such as development, the IT component there reports back to us, but they are part of their organization, even to the point of doing research. There are multiple benefits. As more standards and regulatory issues come up, the IT component in these divisions understands where the organization as a whole is going. ...

The challenge, said Zink, is "people want their own people, with control." To address that, his IT organization created a somewhat unusual service-level agreement:

... It's different from other SLAs in that it doesn't promise uptime and all that stuff. It really talks about management. In higher ed, management on the academic side is usually very loose. So we do essentially a role statement of what the person is supposed to do every year. We do the evaluation of the hiring, with input. The overall direction comes from the academic side, and we make sure it's carried out in the manner we think best fits the organization. We're not competing with each other for salaries, so it works.

Tumas, who heads Wells Fargo's Internet Services Group, told me co-locating IT and business "really helps with resolving issues and getting good camaraderie between the groups." He said:

We know what the business is doing, and the business knows what we are doing. We've done it since the inception of the Internet group in the late 90s. As we started building out some of our major platforms like bill pay, one of the first things we did was to combine business and technology. That project was a huge success; we continue to run that platform in a co-located manner. We've found real reason to keep it going.

When I asked Tumas if this created an attitude of shared projects versus "business projects" and "IT projects," he answered:

Absolutely. Not to say there can't be good communication in a more traditional model with business on one side and IT on the other, but I think we've taken it to the next level. Are there disagreements? Absolutely. But there's a true partnership in getting disagreements resolved and moving forward.

"True partnership." That's an awesome goal, and one that'll likely be easier to achieve if folks work in physical proximity to each other.

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