Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

Maybe Business and I.T. Just Need to Collaborate Better

By Dennis D. McDonald

Jeremiah Owyang has an interesting discussion going on over at his blog in The Challenges of Social Media in the Enterprise, why Business and IT need to align.

He discusses the perennial smack-down between Stodgy Old Corporate I.T. and Shiny New Social Software Supporter. That’s the one where I.T. wants to make sure systems work together and can be supported. “Shiny Supporter” just wants to get the job done without I.T. getting in the way.

There’s something reassuring about this argument that just won’t go away. The list of issues Jeremiah mentions should be enough to give any literate corporate manager with any strategic sense reason to pause and think about bypassing I.T.

My favorite “reason” why I.T. needs to be involved is the Orphan System. That’s when the original business supporter who championed a unique solution has moved on to bigger and better things, and newer systems are starting to take away users. But the Orphan System is still there being updated, maintained, taking up server space, and requiring periodic upgrades, maybe even service and support contracts and software license renewals to keep it secure. Every now and then somebody asks, “Can’t somebody please stick a fork into it?”

Unfortunately, “sticking a fork into” an Orphan System isn’t as easy as just pulling the plug, especially if the system’s data store contains customer data that’s needed for possible regulatory or audit reasons. If there are many orphan systems to consider, especially if the corporation has been cobbled together from a steady string of mergers, the cumulative retirement costs can be quite steep.

Smaller, newer, and more agile companies may think they are immune to these types of issues. To some extent that’s true. Problem is, business unit managers with bottom line responsibilities don’t like to think about such mundane details, and many times it’s the mundane details that the I.T. department has to sweat.

I’ve written before about the “alignment” issue in  How To Develop a Business-Aligned Social Media & Social Networking Strategy. Next to  Business and I.T. Must Work Together to Manage New “Web 2.0” Tools (which I co-wrote with Jeremiah) that’s one of my most popular posts.

The model it describes of “alignment” between business and I.T. assumes there is a unified approach to I.T. management. 

Maybe instead we need to think of more collaborative approaches to aligning I.T. with business. Maybe there are situations where an operating department should have the authority and responsibility to contract directly with I.T. service suppliers. After all, when it comes to social media adoption, aren’t there situations where the total costs will not be technology related but related more to the staff costs associated with changed business processes?

In such situations, maybe it does make sense to put the onus of responsibility on the business unit for overseeing details that the I.T. department has usually had to deal with. — security, log-ons, data sharing, service, support, etc.

This may not be as outlandish as it sounds to a dyed-in-the-wool corporate I.T. type. After all, many “web 2.0” applications are remotely managed anyway,  so why not seek service and support from the vendor? Plus, once the need goes away, so does the application. (But not necessarily the business processes, which the business unit should be most competent about changing.)

What roles would I.T. play in these more “collaborative” arrangements? Perhaps the I.T. department should provide more management, oversight, and strategic direction. When it comes to making sure the I.T. resource satisfies the business need, however, that’s the business unit’s responsibility.

There are already examples of companies adopting this more collaborative approach to I.T. support. One area where this has occurred is in the working out of I.T.’s responsibility for the corporate web site. In some companies, the division of labor is spelled out in terms of responsibility for content (the business unit) and responsibility for hardware and software (I.T.). If such a division of labor has not been worked out, I think there is a high probability that business interest in adoption of social media will exacerbate any existing tension over who is responsible for doing what.

Postscript: Be sure to read Jeremiah Owyang’s The debate rages on: Should IT be involved in the business side of social media? or are they just support? where he summarizes the main points of the discussion he initiated. It appears to me that several of the comments he received do support this concept of a more “collaborative” arrangement between business and I.T. What do you think?



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