TomJerry

Serving in an IT department of a non-IT company, I learned over the years one or two things about our business partners, who are our best friend and patrons, at the same time our ultimate source of headaches.

Bittersweet Partnership

After all, my job is to help them to be successful in their fields, in Sales, Marketing, Finance or Service. In a sense, IT department exists only because our business partners need us. And we need them too, to define the requirements and specs, to decide about the business logics, to promote the products we developed, to sponsor our projects, to give us feedbacks for improvements, etc. So, it’s truly a partnership.

However, we constantly fight with our business partners. They want too much from us within unrealistic short time. We insist on an absolutely necessary infrastructure change they don’t understand and consider too risky. We are furious that they keep changing their mind about the requirements in the last minute. They are bitter about the delay of the new release. This list can go on and on.

Bad guy, good guy

Standing in IT’s shoes (even dress like a developer), I used to think it’s all their fault. They are too picky, technically ignorant, inflexible and simply arrogant. Until one day, I was asked to sit with one of our service representative in the service center, who is responsible for answering client’s calls. She must type in client’s data as fast as she can and answer client’s questions at the same time. She has to be quick because other clients were waiting in the call incoming queues and the average time to handle one call was tracked. To accomplish all her tasks, she relied on the computer and the software, which we produced and maintained. She had to apologize to the client if she couldn’t find the information she needed or it took too long to load up a screen. I can understand how frustrated she was when the software gave her an error she didn’t understand at all.

That experience totally opened up my eyes and I started to see things through the eyes of our business partners. As application users, they don’t understand and don’t want to understand how many cutting-edge technologies we put into the system, how many servers we have setup for an application, and even how many sleepless night we spent to guarantee a smooth release. They see the application as a block box, which provides the necessary functionalities they need to do their jobs. They only care if the application behaves as expected, is available when needed and allows them to login as quickly as possible.So, they are not the bad guys who just want to make our life miserable. They just want us to solve their problems without giving them more troubles.

Root cause

The biggest challenges are the differences between us. We have different tasks in hand. We see things from different view points. We have different criteria for success. We have different expertise and we don’t even speak the same language! When IT people start to talk about the Web Services, RMI invocations and Object-Relational Mapping, our business partners just get dumfounded.This difference by nature caused distrust between IT and Business.

Sometimes, the “black box” idea is leveraged to IT’s benefits. We sneak in the new technologies we would like to learn in the next release. We don’t tell Business about the infrastructure change because they don’t need to know. Well, things blew up. The new technology has some unexpected bug that crashed the application for specific clients. The new server IT rolled in over the weekend processed one third of the client data wrong. Business doesn’t ever trust IT any more. They scrutiny any changes IT propose and become suspicious about any thing IT tells them.

A group of people are brought on board to solve this communication issue between IT and Business. They are the business analyst and the project managers in IT side. In business side, some of them start to accumulate some technical expertise and become the contact person or user champion to represent business when IT needs to be dealt with.This new middle layer is supposed to smooth the operation between IT and Business. However, another issue arises. IT people starts to tell business how to do business and Business people starts to mandate IT how to design the software and the system. Because people think they know enough to have some control on the other side.

Solution

So, can two people from totally different background work well together and develop a productive partnership? Yes, at least the famous book about relationship, Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, says so. If a man and a woman, who are designed by nature totally differently can work together to organize a highly productive unit (called Family), why cannot IT and Business work together effectively?

Here are some of the suggestions based on my experience.

Fundamental

Shared goal/vision

Find the common ground with business partners. We both want to make the product successful. We both want to serve our customers better. We both want to eliminated or at least reduce the number of issues, so we can all have a good sleep at night.Once the common goals/vision is constructed, we can both work toward the same direction and we have some criteria to evaluate our decisions.

Understand and accept the difference

The first thing to work on is to understand the difference between IT and Business. What are other people would like to accomplish? What do they care and don’t care? How they approach this issue and how they think about this issue? IT people tend to think an issue mathematically and abstractly, while business people tend to think more practically in terms of business impacts.Embrace those differences, not reject them. Make good use of the differences to tackle the same issue from different angles. Learn to appreciate an different view.

One Team

The organization should be designed to reward the overall results and reward collaboration based on the shared goals.If everybody is put into one team, with clearly goal and clearly defined positions, people will play like one team.

Techniques

Think Win-Win

Encourage people to think Win-Win solution. Don’t stop at win-lose and lose-win solution. Relationship is as important as the end results.

Build up Trust/Respects

Trust is the magic that makes everything working seamlessly. There are many ways to build up trust between IT and Business, including face to face interaction, cross-training, experience each other’s job and encourage interactions outside working environment.

Communication channels

Make the communication channels smooth. Let the information flow freely between IT and business in an honest and open way.This can be achieved through periodical questionnaire for feedbacks, frequently meetings, share of the documents, inclusive email distribution, discussion forums, and the web 2.0 techniques like wiki and blogging.

After all, we need to treat our business partners truly as partners. Time should be spent to build on relationships, trust grown, appreciation expressed and happiness of success shared. If we do so, not only we will find our life as IT professionals easier and merrier, but also we will find more friends and less enemies in our life.

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