Why doesn't IT get along with everyone else?
Prelude: I have known Dr. Jeffrey Stanton for over 25 years and he is one of the brightest people I know. He has always done things I couldn't understand, yet 5-10 years later they make perfect sense to me. When he decided to leave IT to pursue an advanced degree in Organizational Psychology, claiming "IT isn't working as well as it should - the business promises are not being remotely fully realized and I'm going to research why and figure out how to fix it" (I paraphrase – it has been over a decade since we had this conversation, although I do remember it well). I'll admit I didn't understand. I caught up with Dr. Stanton for this interview recently and was absolutely fascinated when I found out about his research, and especially the results! And let me state right now, Jeffrey is no ivory tower academic. He has spent over a decade in IT, both in technical and management roles, and is very active consulting with impressive, bottom line oriented results.
Ted Demopoulos: Dr. Stanton, tell me about your work examining the relationship of IT and business.
Jeffrey Stanton: I fell into it pretty much by accident. My early research looked at performance monitoring of employees. Because this activity is increasingly accomplished with networking and computers, I also began to look at things like employee satisfaction and technology use and how organizations absorb and adapt to new IT. I was lucky enough to get a research grant to support work in this area, and that led to a number of different studies where we went into an organization, looked at the people and the technology over time, and began to form some conclusions about how things went right and how they went wrong.
Ted Demopoulos: Based on the title of this interview, and what seems to constitute large amounts of empirical data, do you agree that the disconnect between IT and everyone else is as significant as I'm led to believe?
Jeffrey Stanton: I think a lot depends on the size
and culture of the business.
Ted Demopoulos: Are the problems more common as companies get larger? And can you elaborate on the cultural divide between the IT people and others.
Jeffrey Stanton: These problems emerge as companies
get larger because the IT function naturally takes on a life of its
own. As the domain of IT responsibilities grows, the staffing, budgets,
and bureaucracy of the IT function grow along with it. Once IT gets
large enough to have its own distinct and persistent culture within
the firm, that's when it is not unusual to find these cultural divides.
Ted Demopoulos: How do these problems manifest themselves?
Jeffrey Stanton: The two biggies: 1) An IT adoption
failure; 2) A catastrophic information security breach.
Ted Demopoulos: How can organizations tell if they have these types of potential problems?
The front line folks will tell you readily, if you're a neutral party
(i.e., not the boss). One company my research team worked with recently
had a VP of IT who said something like, "We're just one big happy
family here and we all get along great," while the front line IT
people, as well as folks from other departments were saying that they
fought with each other like cats and dogs. The IT folks said that the
people from other departments were always undermining them, not following
rules, ignoring policies, screwing up their PCs and so forth.
Ted Demopoulos: When you find this type of dysfunction between IT and the rest of the organization, how do you "fix it?"
Jeffrey Stanton: If you buy into the whole culture
clash idea that I have, it suggests at least one way of working that
should have applicability in a number of different organizations. What
I recommend is a kind of "cross-cultural" employee swap. Few
small or medium-sized companies are rich enough that they can let an
employee simply disappear into another department for three months.
On the other hand, it may be more feasible to send Joe from IT over
into the finance department for six weeks and Mary from finance into
the IT department for the same amount of time.
Ted Demopoulos: Personally, I have seen this culture
clash numerous times as have many of my colleagues. I wondered if I
just had bad luck or if it was pervasive, as have many of my colleagues.
Jeffrey Stanton: All of these suggestions are potentially workable, but very much untested (as is the total immersion idea). The critical question, as I see it, is how do you help Joe, Mary, and the rest of their departments become effectively bicultural, so that they can bridge the gaps in language, outlook, problem solving approach, and so forth that got the departments at odds with each other in the first place? The shorter their experience with the "other" the less likely it is to work. On the other hand, your instinct to want to get them to "naturally interact" on an ongoing basis is right on the money. There are several studies of environmental design showing that the relations between two departments in an organization depends in part on whether the architecture of the building they inhabit promotes frequent, informal interaction. Which also reminds me that most "cube farms" tend to discourage this kind of interaction because all of the space is cut up into little private plots. Another thing that can bring people together naturally is the so-called foxhole effect: Send Mary and Joe to training together, have the training be very difficult like boot camp, and make sure that Mary and Joe need to rely on each other to succeed at the training. When they come back they will have a social bond that will help enhance communication between the two departments.
Ted Demopoulos: It seems like there are a lot of potential solutions, but not much guidance as to how to implement them. Any final thoughts about this?
Jeffrey Stanton: As a researcher, my stump speech always includes a plea for research access. Companies have to be willing to experiment with this kind of stuff to find out what works. But they also have to be willing to share their successes with the larger community so that we can build a better understanding about how this stuff works. Academic researchers from psychology departments, business schools, and information schools provide the perfect medium for this, because academics don't have a product to promote or sell, and they can provide a veil of anonymity if the company decides it doesn't want its name associated with the research results. So my last word would be a standing request for companies that are doing major technology projects to open their doors to qualified academic research teams. Although the interviews and such that academics do are a small tax on productivity, the payoff can be much better feedback and honest progress reports that can help a company's IT folks develop better rapport and coordination with the rest of the firm.
Ted Demopoulos: Thank you very much Jeffrey! We wish you great success in your research, and the enormous promise it holds. And hopefully some readers will be able to provide you with appropriate research access!
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