Here’s What’s Really Wrong With IT And How To Fix It

Information Technology (IT) is broken and here's how to fix it
Information Technology (IT) is broken and here’s how to fix it

No holding back this time, I’m just going to let it all come out. I just got done reading my 1,000th article on how to improve an IT department and it was as worthless as most of the others that I’ve read. For way too long I’ve been listening to gurus, consultants, and other so-called smart people who have proposed band-aid after band-aid to stop the hemoraging that is going on in IT right now. As an industry we seem to be going through CIO-of-the-month scenarios, my friends and colleagues are burned out and fed up, and now we’re learning that the next generation of kids don’t want to have anything to do with IT.

What’s Wrong With IT?

In a nutshell, we’re too different. Yeah, yeah, I know that we treasure our late start times, all night work sessions, flip-flops at the office and multi-screen desktops that sit in front of our original Star Wars posters, but it’s killing us. Foosball tables in the hallways, SQL command hierarchy charts on the wall, and action figures lined up on top of cube partitions don’t do a good job of saying “we’re part of this company”. Instead, they say “we’re different”. That’s the problem.

I’m not sure how this all started, but I blame air-conditioning. The early mainframe computers could only operate from within well air-conditioned rooms and so naturally the technicians who maintained and programmed them were placed in the same room or near by. This allowed them to be hidden from the rest of the company. Out of sight, out of mind. The action figures showed up, the dress code got thrown away, and the MIS team stopped trying to fit in.

Who Cares?
You do. Your career is going to be very short and you are going to be quite bitter when your IT job goes away. The company views you and your department as a cost not an asset and they are even now looking for ways to reduce the expense that is known as you.

The CIO cares because he/she just doesn’t seem to understand why none of the other executives really want to play with them. The reason is simple, the IT department is weird and so by extension the CIO must be weird and who really want’s to play with a weirdo?

What To Do?
In the immortal words of the hair removal lady in the movie The 40 Year-Old Virgin, “…this is going to hurt.” What needs to be done is that IT needs to look, act, and talk like the other parts of the company. I’m going to go one step further and say that the role model that they need to follow is the finance department. “Ouch!” you say. Yep, put the long sleeve shirts back on, jettison the Foosball table, take down the star wars posters, and let’s all get back to moving the company forward.

The thinking behind this is simple: who do we like to work with? We like to work with people who are like us. That means that if the IT department really wants to align itself with the rest of the business, then it needs to start to look like, sound like, and act like the other departments. The finance department is generally well respected and has the ear of the senior management team so they are a great role model for the IT department. In fact, the IT department should try to be viewed as finance’s “brother department” — if you’re talking to one, you should be talking to both.

What would this do for a CIO? First it would instantly boost his / her respectability. All of a sudden everyone would realize that the CIO and the IT department were really part of the company and that they were working to make a profit also. This would allow the CIO to start to take on different information management tasks that showed real value to the company. Finally! Alignment would be possible.

Don’t get me wrong here, I like Foosball as much as the next IT staffer. However, I believe that the “IT markings” need to be taken down so that we can blend in with the rest of the company. There should be some special place buried deep within the IT department that can be turned into a shrine for IT. This is the place where the IT employees can go to indulge in IT talk and, perhaps, play some Foosball. However, once they leave this special palace, they should re-enter a workplace that looks like they are a part of the rest of the company.

26 thoughts on “Here’s What’s Really Wrong With IT And How To Fix It”

  1. Well I haven’t ever seen a table football game in work around here and we aspire to blend in…

    Yes, the Finance Department is a brother department but a slightly pimply math-loving little bro. Yes we should learn how he carefully controls budgets and never allows anyone to overspend their allowance. But have they done anything to improve the rest of the company? emails, blackberrys, collaboration, ERP systems, project and change management?

    If we are not holding back, what improvements have Finance contributed in the last ten years? Sarbanes Oxley controls? Slamming Stable doors after the horse has bolted – and worse still not an appropriate reaction to prevent the next crisis.

    • Nic: ok, so you have a valid point. However, you are thinking like an engineer! Look, finance already has a seat at the big table and they play a key role in the company’s strategy making. IT does not always have the same seat or play the same role. In order to move forward, IT is going to need some supporters and finance is a critical one. So I think that we’re going to have to bit the bullet and cozy up to our (as geeky, but in a different way) brothers / sisters in finance and forge some strong bonds.

      • Yeah. It’s frustrating that because finance hold the purse strings they get to the board room… however much more IT adds.
        Or Is it just that CEO and CFO come before CIO in alphabet? 🙂

  2. Hi Jim,

    Up until 2 years ago I might have accepted the validity of this argument. I worked for and with companies where IT looked and acted different, and it was always a sore spot for me. It was my belief that if IT just worked a bit harder to fit in, that they naturally would fit in.

    2 years ago I went to work for a financial services firm where everyone in the company wore a suit and tie. IT looked like Accounting, Finance, HR, as well as the brokerage folks, the banking folks, and the research folks. Everyone from the CIO’s office down to the help desk staff looked like most everyone else in the rest of the company.

    Our offices (yes, most of us had offices – cubes were few and far between) were furnished according to a company-wide standard. Each office had the same desks, chairs, credenzas, framed paintings, fake plants. The only way you could have told a difference was that after much discussion we were approved to have dry erase marker boards. But no posters, no action figure collections… The “geek-o-sphere” was not to be found.

    In spite of this, IT was as much a step-child there as at any other non-IT industry company I’ve worked with or for. Our CIO was a very intelligent and articulate person, but he knew full well the place IT held. It wasn’t last, but perhaps close to the rear of the bus, considered good for keeping the phones working and email moving.

    I was horrified at how they would listen to vendors again and again, discounting the evaluations and documents IT put together. When the business-side got burned by side-stepping their own IT department, the blame still lay with IT because it’s all “IT.”

    I have been reading your blog for a while and agree with a lot you have to say, but in this case I just don’t think the concept works in practice. I agree with leaving the foosball in the arcade and wearing something more professional than flip-flops, but merely looking like the rest of the company is no better than window dressing if you don’t have the respect and the ear of the business leadership.

    With kind regards,

    Steve Whitcomb

    • Steve: a very well worded reply – thanks for taking the time. You bring up a very good point that I’ve been dancing around – looking like everyone else is just the start. In my heart of hearts I believe that it really comes down to having IT become Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) in whatever the company does. Yes, this is completely unfair – why should we have to learn their world inside out and they don’t have to do the same for our world? Get over it. If we “become them” and speak their language and understand their goals, then the sought-after-but-never-found goal of fusing the IT department into the rest of the company can be achieve. Not easy, but definitely possible. What do you think – am I a dreamer?

      • Dr Anderson, In my world I attempt to learn everything I can about a fellow colleges role and then win them over by making successful business recommendations. Now I am not an outsider, but seen as a trusting IT guru supporting them. I also feel IT is the nucleous to a company. Think about it in that respect and you will start leading all projects, even financials. When working for a startup it was extremely clear who the last person out the door would be when financing did not come through, you guessed it “IT.” So my dress code has always been shirt, tie and most of the time jacket and my reputation gain the respect of cardiac surgeons who delayed seeing a patient to address my needs if I just walked into their office. Be the leader, not the outsider/geek. If you don’t understand their business, how can you help them?

        • Perry: you bring up a number of excellent points. I like the fact that you are “dressing the part”. Ultimately, although this really has nothing to do with how much you know or how valuable you are, it is one of the keys to how others will judge you. It sounds like you are doing everything correctly – keep up the good work!

          • You are right, it is not how much I know, but having a suit on did get me the respect of those upper executives and they then listened, in comparison to counterparts who were in t-shirts and holy jeans. Did I know more… I am sure not but when you are sitting in a board room with executives I have to be honest, they look to the guy with the suit on as if it were one of them.

  3. Jim,

    Nothing wrong with dreaming. When I ponder on this topic, and I’ve done so for at least a decade or more, I can’t help but feel there needs to be something big that has to change to achieve this “fusion.” You know that great catch phrase the management gurus toss around – PARADIGM SHIFT. It may require a modern day Moses with a set of silicon tablets!

    But seriously, I really like the SME concept from an IT standpoint. I would go so far as to say we had many people that fell in this category. However, it might be more powerful to infuse a little IT savvy into the business community so they have more confidence that they can wield IT as a weapon against their competition. The real power of business intelligence, collaboration, automation, search and more would be unstoppable when driven by leadership. Some firms do this of course, but so many companies seem to have a very hard time getting it.

    Perhaps there should be a set of courses that provide an overview of current and coming IT capabilities in the business schools and schools of management. There has been a measure of this in some MBA programs, of course. But it should be more widespread and should appear at the undergraduate level as well. It would be delivered with a focus on IT’s capability to add punch to business success, rather than just how to account for it or simply manage it.

    I guess it’s my turn to dream?


    • Guys, here’s my .02:
      As goes the top guy, so goes the company. If the top guy looks at IT as cost center, and you don’t want to be part of that or won’t work to change that, then its time to go.
      Business is not really complicated: we are there to turn a profit. So what are we doing to assist that? If nothing, then expect to be treated like that. You are reactive at best.
      It’s time people stopped thinking about their outer appearances and began to be other-focused.
      At the base, I would contend we have an moral issue because if we’re thinking about “what’s in this for me” we are clearly selfish and will be recognized as such.
      It’s not all about you when you are at work, IMHO.

  4. Interesting. When I had to get out of IT, it was because we had gone from being the geeks that solved problems to being the official whipping boy for the problems, and the underpaid ones at that. The perqs that you mention – dress code, foosball, etc. were added because it was the only way to keep any of the competent IT guys from getting out completely. I left because the lack of pay and extremely low social status meant that I could make almost as good a living as a grad student at some state university, and was replaced by some contractors who got even less pay and benefits than I did.

    Why should the IT guys give up the only benefits they get? I have seen our roles described as “plumbers,” and that sure fits what I felt like – only welcome when the sewer overflows, and then the beneficiaries hold their noses until we leave. I can’t see that as having changed, so why would we want to be absorbed – to lower our non-existent status even further? So that our pay can get as low as the folks from Bangalore that they are trying to outsource our jobs to anyway? What’s the point? I would in no way have ever gone into IT if I had any inkling of how bad it would get, and I sure wouldn’t recommend it to anyone as a career.

    • David: ouch! What you are describing is the “old school” IT employee – which still exists in a lot of IT shops. What the future needs is the “new school” IT employee who is half business / half IT. These are the folks who will work side-by-side with the rest of the business and finally show everyone that IT is a critical part of the company, not just the electronic janitors…

      • As a engineer/contractor (my post-IT incarnation,) I have gone into a lot of businesses, and the “old style” is what IT departments ARE. Nobody in management wants an IT person who is smart enough to think about business decisions – that threatens the already insecure management. It is NOT the employees, but the top management (and the top-down management system) that has the problem.

        Sure that is “old school” IT, but the employee on the bottom end is essentially powerless to change it. Any employee that is “smart” enough to try to educate the management will be out the door so quickly there will be a contrail behind him or her – happens all the time. It is not the employees who control the level of respect they get or the way they are treated, at least not if they want to keep their jobs.

        What you write about IT people becoming part of the business requires more enlightened management than I have seen at ANY of the companies I have been in, either as contractor or employee. Most of the companies I have seen are still in the mode of trying to jam IT even further out of the management structure.

        One company I worked for was using a “shared services” model that outsources ALL of the IT functions as far as management is concerned. Even though the IT personnel are still “employees” of the company, they are treated essentially as contractors from a management standpoint – no social status, no pay and no decision-making power. This is management decision making, not the IT employees that you are hammering on.

        Are you sure we are living on the same (business) planet? Not meaning to sound flip, but what you write about just doesn’t come even vaguely close to what I see here on the ground. I might even like to work in your world, but it is just a fantasy as far as I can see, so I have to stay in engineering.

        • David: you make a good point – I’ve seen the same thing. However, you don’t mention what type of businesses you have worked in. I last saw the kind of behavior that you are talking about when I worked in the defense industry. They could get away with it because they really didn’t have any competition – once they got the contract, they were set. In the “real world” where you could go out of business tomorrow, the “old style” is getting swept out the door along with the management that supported it. Everything changes with time…

          • I have worked with many of the larger industrial companies in my area. Since my engineering specialty is production automation, that limits me to industrial companies that are large enough to support automation. There are a lot of auto and auto-related businesses, as well as non-automotive industrial firms. Since my work is all industrial, however, I don’t work with service-oriented companies, and there are very few “high tech” firms in the area.

            In conversations with management types at my various customers and employers, I have often been told (directly or indirectly) that these companies do not value IT as a “core competency,” hence the red-haired stepchild treatment.

            Even though the information content involved in producing the products has risen far faster than the materials or labor costs, the management only sees the cost of that information as an expense, not an investment. At least part of this is purely accounting methodology, but it is also a habit of thought.

            Even companies that talk a great deal about “Intellectual Property” don’t value the IT functions. Even though returning to older, paper-based methods of handling production data would be cost-prohibitive, information handling (in general) gets no respect, whether it be drawings (that in many cases are make-or-break, high cost items) or other data.

    • Harkirat: All too often companies don’t take the time to fix their processes and just outsource a mess and hope that the outsourcer will clean it up. Getting it right and then deciding if they should be doing the work is the way to go…

  5. Interesting discussion. I’ll spare the details of my experience, but I’ve been doing IT for 25 years, mostly as a developer and now IT strategy & architecture for one of the Big 4 accounting firms.

    I have to wonder, does IT really have/want/need a seat at the table? In most industries IT is a homegrown evil because there wasn’t someone to source to 25 years ago (save EDS). If you wanted information systems, you had to do it yourself. It doesn’t mean that a durable goods manufacturer was any good at IT or knew how to run it, they just did it – in a way that probably modeled their core business which was sure to be the wrong approach.

    Sourcing commoditized services for the business has gone on long before IT. A package delivery company outsources the building and maintenance of its truck fleet, airlines outsource the design and construction of its planes, etc. I work at a financial services company that is moving its information services to a sourced model. My self preservation doesn’t dig that, but for my company I happen to think it’s a wise choice. Why? Because we stink at it. We try to run IT like we run Financial Audits. Think about your own experiences. I consulted for 15 years and in almost all cases IT ran wrong – it ran like the business. The one place that ran it right was a software design company – go figure.

    IT as an engineering discipline is relatively young (50 years or so) and we are seeing the beginnings of the commoditization of those services – enter HP, Wipro, Tata, etc. But we’re not there yet; businesses are in that transition period between “I do it” to “I buy it”.

    But to buy it requires some key things: consistency, quality, value to name a few. Some aspects of IT, namely software development, remains relatively undisciplined in terms of engineering. It is therefore difficult to be consistent because the means are not consistent. Add that to building on top of poorly engineered legacy systems and you have a difficult and expensive undertaking.

    But the sea is changing and the business senses it. IT never FIT because it wasn’t the core business – no more than building a plane fits with being an airline. I think IT is moving to a much better state through Dawinistic consolidation and survival of the fittest IT providers. The marketplace is always right – eventually. People and businesses arrive at the most efficient means to win or else they lose.

    IT doesn’t get a seat at the table anymore than the company that maintains the HVAC in the building. They both provide an important service but neither runs the business.

    • William: You are correct in that the role of IT at too many companies is exactly as you describe it. However, it’s the exceptions to the rule that capture our imagination – FedEx, Walmart, Harrod’s – these are all companies that would be nothing if not for their IT departments. Why can’t every company be this way?


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