by Damian Smith

How to Fix Ailing IT-Client Relationships

Aug 07, 20068 mins
Business IT Alignment

Although not a new issue, the breakdown of working relations between IT departments and their internal clients appears to be getting not only more common, but also more serious. In fact, the frequency and extent of these breakdowns appear to be reaching epidemic proportions in the United States. Virtually every organization I talk to is displaying at least some of the symptoms of this breakdown, and many are well on their way to the later-stage symptoms that normally result in the termination or resignation of the CIO.

I parallel these breakdowns to the onset and progression of an illness. It starts with “the sniffles,” progresses quickly to “the flu” and “pneumonia,” and then eventually reaches the end stages of “death and reincarnation.” Typical symptoms at each stage of the breakdown are normally easy to identify, often just by listening for some key phrases and comments from your team and clients. By the way, all the quotes below are real.

Early Stage—the Sniffles

In the early stages, the comments you will start to hear are, normally, relatively mild expressions of frustration and maybe some early finger pointing for project delays and issues. Comments like, “IT just doesn’t get it” and, “I don’t have time for this—I need this functionality now” start to become common among business users who, under pressure to adapt to a rapidly changing and increasingly competitive business environment, feel that IT is not responsive enough.

Meanwhile, the already overwhelmed IT department starts to complain that the business users are unrealistic and aren’t willing to invest the time needed to develop solid requirements. Comments like, “The business users kept changing their minds” and, “Lots of requirements didn’t come out until UAT” are common in IT status meetings.

Middle Stage—the Flu

Pretty soon you’ve come down with the flu. Probably as a result of a high-profile project that didn’t meet expectations: “Not only was the new system late, it cost twice as much as they said it would and it doesn’t do half the things we need it to.” IT starts enforcing methodology and/or introduces a layer of business analysts “to bridge the gap between the business and IT.”

Unfortunately, the business clients don’t appreciate the methodology: “IT is so wound up in red tape these days, you can’t get anything done,” and the analyst layer often becomes “just as bad as IT” or “just as bad as the users.” Often, under pressure to show results, the analysts start trying to force manage their projects to completion, which leads to resentment: “Are they analysts or project managers?”

It is also normal at this stage for both sides to start pointing out each other’s failings: “We wouldn’t have these problems if they knew what they were doing over there” and, “What we need is well-documented business processes.” Both sides may start trying to manage the other: “The business needs to get its own house in order before it starts trying to fix ours.” And of course, the business starts creating its own solutions without IT: “We’ve given up waiting for IT; we’ll do it ourselves.”

Advanced Stage—Pneumonia

Before you know it, you have full-blown pneumonia. Additional layers of analysts have been created to “help standardize business processes,” “develop real business requirements,” “manage client relationships” and/or “manage client solutions.” I have seen organizations with six or seven layers between the user and developer, making requirements gathering into a hopeless game of telephone.

Shadow IT systems and teams have grown within the business units. This leads to competition and antagonism: “We’re no longer supporting any systems we didn’t create” from IT, and, “This IT manager just isn’t cutting it” or, “My guys are way better” or even, “We should fire the IT team and give their budget to my team” from the shadow IT teams.

End Stage—Death and Reincarnation

By the end stages, the relationship between IT and the business is openly antagonistic and defensive. Trying to regain control, IT leadership will issue directives: “We have to just start saying no, even if they have the money.” This of course is quickly countered: “I’m not using IT anymore; I’m going to AAA Consulting—they know what they’re doing.”

Many in IT start avoiding contact with their clients: “I’ve stopped answering the phone when I know it’s my business client.” This of course leads to more frustration on the business side until eventually somebody high up says, “I think it’s time for some new leadership in IT” or, “Maybe we should outsource the IT department.” Either way, it normally spells the end for the CIO.

Treatment and Vaccination

So what are the treatments for this disease? How do you cure and then vaccinate your organization from further infection and prevent it from affecting your career?

Admit you have a problem.

By far the most important step is the first one: admitting you have a problem. Too many IT departments downplay relationship breakdown as just the realities of IT today, the cost of doing business. Or they become cynical.

But I don’t believe this cynicism is justified. I have worked with many CIOs who have strong and productive relationships with their clients built on trust and mutual respect. And I know from experience it’s possible to treat relationship breakdown and also to cure it.

Understand the root causes.

In most organizations, the underlying root causes of relationship breakdown are differing expectations and a lack of understanding about the pressures, impacts and realities of life on the other side of the fence. Business clients need and expect a greater level of service and support from IT than IT is expecting to, is able to, or believes it should have to deliver.

I believe this is because neither side has taken the time to explain its side to the other. IT underestimates business leadership’s interest in and ability to understand complex IT realities, and the business underestimates IT leadership’s ability to understand complex business issues. But most business executives have grown up with computers and aren’t afraid to get a little bit technical, and most IT leaders are business people first and technologists second—many have MBAs.

Take them “behind the curtain.”

I believe it is time to take business clients “behind the curtain.” They need to understand why it’s so hard for IT to be responsive and how their actions as impatient and demanding business clients have actually contributed to the problem.

Equally, IT needs to understand the issues and realities of business. They need to understand what it’s like to be yelled at by an irate customer when the call center system goes down and what it’s like to lose a deal because the systems couldn’t keep up with competitors.

I had one client who summarized this very concisely: “The only way this is going to work is if we staple their butts together!”

The key is to achieve a shared understanding of the issues and problems of both sides. If this shared understanding can be achieved, then most of the other issues and symptoms can be addressed by focusing and employing best practices. Without this shared understanding, however, the symptoms will continue no matter what you do.

Focus, think competitively, employ best practices and get counseling. Of course, there is a wide range of proven best practices, methodologies and approaches like Strategic Information Systems Planning, Balanced Scorecards, Capability Maturity Model Integration, Agile, IT Infrastructure Library, etc., that can help IT become more efficient and effective. Many of these should definitely be rolled out in your organization. But before you do that, there are a few basics.

First, IT should focus on keeping the trains and buses running on time. For some organizations, the trains and buses are the telephones and e-mail systems; for others they may also include the ERP and CRM systems. Before you do anything else, work out what your core systems are and make sure you can keep them running smoothly. After all, if you can’t keep the trains and buses running on time, you have no business trying to run air traffic control.

Second, IT should shift to a competitive mind-set. IT is no longer a back-office function with a monopoly on its clients. Competition from consultants, outsourcers, offshore providers and shadow IT teams is fierce. To survive, IT needs to start thinking of itself as an IT consulting operation that is competing for business within its target market—the business units.

Finally, if the relationship between IT and your business clients has degraded significantly, it will be virtually impossible for that relationship to be repaired without external help. Hire an impartial third party to facilitate a change in the relationship and get IT marriage guidance counseling.

Damian Smith is the managing vice president, corporate management solutions with Hitachi Consulting. Over his nearly 20-year career, he has worked on both sides of the fence, and has advised both CIOs and their business clients on IT-related issues for more than a decade.