Eli Weinstock-Herman

IT vs The Business

Original post posted on March 26, 2013 at LessThanDot.com

Monday I caught the Food Fight Show, discussing The Phoenix Project and featuring Gene Kim (site|twitter), Jez Humble (blog|twitter), and Matthew Zeier (blog|twitter).

Part of the way through the show, a conversation took place that I couldn't get out of my head.

Here's the situation:

A business person is asking IT to implement a blog using a specific NoSQL database solution and we push back and try to examine why they want it, and oh by the way we have this great business opportunity for you (around 29:30).

Which reminded me of a related question I heard (I thought in the show, but apparently it must have been earlier in the day):

Why it is OK for the IT person to talk business to the business person, when it's not OK for the business person to talk IT to the IT person.

What bothered me the whole drive home is the built in assumption that the business and IT are separate entities. The panel went deep into value streams and hypotheses-driven development from here, but I think there was something wrong with the root of this story, where we accepted the separation of IT person and business. This may seem overly detail-oriented, but I think far too many IT people see themselves exactly this way.

And it's wrong.

Here's the flaw in this story (and every other place we talk about IT vs the business):

Joe Random Executive doesn't know all the intricacies of accounting, purchasing, warehousing, marketing, sales, law, human resources, or any of a dozen other areas. They will probably know a couple in detail, but they are no more an expert in the rest then they are in IT (and of course we assume they didn't have an IT Background). These are all skills or roles that get casually lumped under the "business" umbrella. Because somehow all areas but IT are business, while only IT is non-business.

Is this ego or laziness? Some of both. Only in the IT department do we somehow think our role gives us a magic ticket to be totally ignorant about the company we work for.

This is absurd.

It makes no more sense then suggesting that accounting is far too intricate to spend time learning how the business around them works. Or that the ever-changing logistics and supply market supersedes understanding the products we are purchasing or shipping. Or that knowing what markets we sell to has any importance to the lawyers. Or that our business growth strategies should take any time away from HR activities around screening and hiring,.

Maybe the whole company is siloed, but seeing it as IT vs The Business is silly (see Gene Kim's point 25 minutes in).

As an aside, spellcheck prefers to call that soiled. I find myself in agreement.

But wait, these are IT ops people talking, surely this is different, right?

I'll give you a hint, Gene Kim talks early on about how The Phoenix Project was influenced by The Goal (Eliyahu Goldratt), whose main character is a plant operations manager. So no, IT Ops, IT QA, IT Technician, you are no more off the hook then the enormous variety of lawyers a business may need to work with over the course of it's life.

There are two types of workers, and they aren't IT and non-IT, they are engaged and not engaged.

Are you doing your job?

Are you doing the job, or just playing with technology?

An engaged worker knows how the company works, at some level. They can discuss the strategies the business is executing, what their company does, and who their customers are. They may not be able to discuss these things with equal facility as the executives or experts in specific departments, but they can have an intelligent conversation about their business.

The not-engaged worker is just there to do a job and go home. They are the protectors of turf, the ones that deny every request they can get away with, or the ones that simply don't care.

Ignorance of how your company works is a sign of incompetence, not something to be proud of.

So the reason an IT person (even an IT Ops person) can speak to a non-IT worker about the business is because "the business" is the common language they share. IT, accounting, purchasing, human resources, whoever ... when we need to discuss why something is important, we discuss it's impact on the the business, the strategies or targets it effects, etc. In fact, being in IT typically requires a higher level of day-to-day, cross-functional contact then any of the prior examples. More, not less.

Engaging the business has come and gone as part of many buzzy things, and in DevOps it's rising again. Regardless of it's current popularity, if you work for a company, being an IT person doesn't magically separate you from the goals everyone else is working towards. Engage, learn the business, help them succeed, you'll find that you're company is doing some really interesting things and works with some really interesting people. If it's not, find one that resonates with you and learn what they're doing. Either way, you're part of the business, an you chose whether you're competent or not.

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