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Time to bury IT misconceptions

Industry watcher Jon Oltsik says technology departments are being shortchanged by managerial dinosaurs who fail to understand or trust their IT compadres. His advice: Get with the times or suffer the consequences.

For years, business executives have blamed their technology departments for overspending and underdelivering. But it's time these same complainers owned up to their own responsibilities and understood certain realities about IT.

Let's first dispel some popular misconceptions about IT. The fact is IT people know more about the business than businesspeople know about technology.

What's more, their opposite numbers in IT can suggest ways to use technology to strengthen the company--be it in helping to find new sources of revenue, cut costs or streamline processes. And because they know every nook and cranny in the IT infrastructure, they also can quickly distinguish between expensive pipe dreams and achievable projects.

Some business managers still view IT simply as a cost center that must be contained. The reality is that you get what you pay for and IT happens to be very expensive. New business processes like sales force automation or supply-chain integration require millions of dollars in equipment investments.

As a result, IT is forced to constantly upgrade or replace systems as they become obsolete. CIOs can beat up companies to extract better prices, but you can't substitute a Volkswagen for a Cadillac and expect the same results.

The reality is that your average IT department is not going to be the equivalent of those operated by the likes of eBay, or Charles Schwab (unless, of course, you work at one of these companies). But these companies didn't just accidentally build their technology capabilities; it took years and millions of dollars to reach that point.

A final reality: IT is more magic than science, so desired results might take time to achieve, and Murphy's Law is more apt to apply to technology than to other things in life. When the development manager says a new project will take 12 months to implement, believe and trust the person.

You can't substitute a Volkswagen for a Cadillac and expect the same results.
Rather than rant and rave about the IT black hole, business managers who want quicker results should break projects into phases with defined milestones and schedules with measurable and visible results.

Hand-in-hand with a more nuanced appreciation of IT's role, business managers also must shoulder certain responsibilities:

• For starters, they need to put more effort into working with IT. If the vice president of sales wants to benefit from the company's new Siebel Systems features, how about making sure the company's top sales people actively contribute to the project? A small investment of up-front time can pay dividends later.

• It's up to business managers to make sure their people are trained. Help desk managers could go on for hours about the bonehead questions that get sent their way. Executives who remain penny-wise and pound-foolish about this don't have any right to complain about IT.

• Fix business processes before automating them. A broken business process will remain broken in spite of all the technology in the world.

Business executives still wax nostalgically about the days when there were no PCs and IT staff worked in a fishbowl and wore lab coats.
Will business managers change? They are going to need a lot of help. Business executives still wax nostalgically about the days when there were no PCs and IT staff worked in a fishbowl and wore lab coats. Since they don't understand IT, their tendency is to mistrust it. Talk about a recipe for disaster!

Smart business managers will recognize the problem and find ways to build bridges to IT managers. Were the CEO to ask the CIO for advice on existing business issues, he or she would be surprised to learn how much about the organization the executive already knew.

Old-line business managers who don't understand and mistrust IT are dinosaurs. There is just no talking around the fact they must change their behavior. Those that do will bring their business units into the 21st century. Those that can't--or won't--can only expect marginal success, at best.