Two Worlds, Two Languages

ClearPath Forward4 minutes readFeb 7th, 2013

In my last blog (Are IT procurement processes an obstacle to success?) I said that discussion between those representing the business and the IT people at the planning stage of IT projects is critical to success. However, I concluded with the observation that: “…the fundamental difficulty is that IT and business people do not understand each other well enough – they do not speak the same language.” I’ll try to justify that view and suggest what can be done about it.

‘Discussion’ is a conversation: two or more parties exchange views and ideas, arguing about them, trying to reach common ground and a conclusion. The absence of a common language means that there are parallel monologues rather than an exchange. There is no communication and hence no common ground or conclusion. This is obvious in the case of natural languages but equally a problem with specialist vocabularies such as IT.

If the business and IT people do not communicate, the business may view the IT organisation as unresponsive, slow and expensive. It holds the business back while being a drain on resources. On the other hand, IT comes to see the business as overly demanding, with unrealistic expectations, especially as it is too tight with money. These problems are not universal but occur frequently enough to be a source of concern.

The gap in understanding can and does have serious consequences. Projects significantly under-achieve; ill-considered, large-scale projects are started for no good reason. The following illustrates my point, in this case in the public sector.

The British politician Jack Straw was Home Secretary for part of the time during the Labour governments of 1997 to 2010. When he took over the Home Office, he encountered an IT project experiencing major problems with highly visible external consequences.

In his memoirs (Last Man Standing, MacMillan, 2012, p 295), Mr. Straw quotes the chairman of the Public Accounts Committee (a parliamentary watchdog) as saying that in this case and in many others there had been a ‘horrible interface’ between civil servants who ‘understand all there is to know about, for example, the National Insurance system but know little of how a computer works, and the technicians who know just the reverse. They don’t spend enough time at the start of a project explaining where they are both coming from’.

The private sector is equally guilty but much better at hiding the consequences.

So what can be done? Like many real problems, there is no quick fix available, but that does not mean that we can’t do anything. It is essential to recognise that the problem is a real one. Each side can then make determined efforts to find out more about the other. IT should be seen as a significant player in the business, ideally with board-level representation.

A starting point could be the ClearPath Advisory Services. The Appraisal Service brings together representatives from the business and IT to review the current state of the IT environment and the desired future state to meet business needs. Experience of Appraisals so far conducted shows that communication is improved. We have found different sides of the organisation talking to each other in ways that they have not done before, and realising that they have viewed things differently.

The TCO Assessment provides an analysis of the total cost of the IT systems, and how the costs are distributed. The costs are expressed in ways that are of direct relevance to the business: what is the IT cost of doing what the business does, for example making vehicles or managing bank accounts. How does the organisation compare with its peers?

Knowing the IT direction to satisfy the business and an understanding of costs are important factors in improving communication. And although we have worked with ClearPath system clients so far, the Advisory Services can be equally effective with any technology.