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Q&A: Bridging the IT-Business Divide

IBM’s Harriet Fryman discusses the age-old chasm between IT and business and how new technology and understanding are closing it.

It’s a common standoff: IT needs control over data and BI professionals yearn for unfettered freedom to use that data. Today’s fast-moving world can’t afford that sort of rigid either/or divide any more, says IBM’s Harriet Fryman. She sees new technology, plus a fresh appreciation on both sides of what the other needs and wants, as helping bridge the chasm.

Fryman, a 20-year-plus veteran in business intelligence and data warehousing, is an executive with the BI and Performance Management division within IBM’s Business Analytics software group; she leads the product marketing team and go-to-market strategy for the BI and performance management portfolio. Fryman writes and speaks on key BI trends including emerging technology, convergence with social software, big data, and cloud technologies.

BI This Week: How big -- and how old -- is this IT/business divide?

Harriet Fryman: It’s really an age-old problem since the first days of IT. Technology back then was often beyond the capacity of the average business manager, who was usually someone just looking to get normal business processes done by telephone and letter. From there, it’s grown into a perception from business that IT uses lots of jargon and has projects that always take too long. For IT, meanwhile, it’s “If only the business understood us a little bit better, we would be able to work together better.”

It’s a sort of “odd couple” lack of understanding and appreciation of the other person’s perspective and what their expertise and objectives are.

Is it getting better or worse?

Actually, I think it’s getting better. There’s a better appreciation that the divide exists, first of all. In most organizations, the CIO now reports either into the CEO or CFO, or sits at the table with the management committee as a peer, looking at business goals vs. IT infrastructure.

Does it works both ways now -- IT understands business better and business has a better understanding of IT?

Yes, and I also believe there’s a better understanding of common goals. Now, that doesn’t solve some of the challenges that IT faces -- the fact that it takes time to do things that the business wants much faster, and the fact that business is sometimes, out of frustration, purchasing software solutions themselves in hopes of a quick fix.

What are the challenges that IT faces?

In analytics, which I’m very familiar with, the challenge is that businesses want to make decisions based on the best available data. That may be historical sales data, it may be third-party data -- for example, from point-of-sale scans in consumer packaged goods companies -- and so forth. IT has all this data that’s a byproduct of transactional systems. It’s not structured, it’s not aggregated, and it’s not provided in the way that business needs to make decisions.

A translation is needed for business: “You have the data, but it’s not what I want because it’s not organized, shaped, or constructed in a manner that makes sense for analytics.” What we’ve often seen in analytics projects is one of two things. A business analyst who really understands the business drivers but is working on behalf of IT sits in the department, doing that translation between business terminology and IT systems, or, increasingly, we see people set up competency centers that pull together people from the business side of the house and the IT side of the house.

Has the relatively new focus on analytics made the relationship between business and IT more challenging in some ways?

Analytics is one of those areas that has been a factor in forcing IT and business to work together. It’s like the chicken and the egg. There’s no point in having a lot of information unless you put it to good use, and there’s no point in having a lot of very good questions that can help answer what you should do in the business without the information to back it up. ... The handshake between business and IT is the information itself.

So business understands the value of data more than ever before?

Yes, because of two drivers.

One is the tremendous desire to create efficiency in an organization. The first thing you need to know on the business side is: How is the business running, and where are the opportunities for cost efficiency?

That leads to lots of analytic-like questions from the business. Where am I spending? How much am I spending? If I cut the costs in this area, what impact would it have on other areas? Those are all analytic questions that business now needs the answers to so they can make the right decisions.

The other area that’s driving business interest in analytics is the wealth of data that now sits outside of organizations in the social media world. No longer does the marketing department purchase the business’s reputation in the marketplace. Reputation is earned in the social media community.

To understand what’s happening in the business, the organization needs to understand all those other datasets outside of their transactional systems. Again, those are analytical questions. Who’s saying what about me? Is it positive or negative? How can I influence it? The level of questions asked about how to create efficiency, and how to create customer relationships, has made analytics the hottest buzz word since service-oriented architecture (SOA). The difference is that analytics is very tangible, very real, and very business-oriented, whereas SOA was much more of an architectural philosophy.

Also, the business is much more empowered. We talked about the fact that IT people were once the only ones with computers. Nowadays, every business person has a smartphone and a tablet device. ... Businesspeople are much more savvy about information than they were even 10 years ago.

Would you say it’s getting better but the gap between business and IT still exists? What solutions are there for addressing it?

We talked a little bit about the organization. I don’t think we can underestimate the need to organizationally pull people together under a common objective.

In terms of technology in analytics, we’ve seen centralization, then decentralization. ... Back in the 80s, there was the rise of desktop slice-and-dice analysis tools in the business. Cognos was one of them, giving businesspeople the ability to explore the data themselves. Every businessperson had their own data, very much like spreadsheets today -- very silo-ed.

Then there was a shift in the 90s, when enterprise BI technology came along as the distributer of reports. The data was now consistent, but it took all the freedom away from business.

In the 2000s, there was a backlash -- desktop discovery tools came to the fore again. For a relatively inexpensive price with no capital expense, businesspeople could go out and buy their own analysis tools -- whether an office productivity product or a tool just to get up and running. The reports that IT used to deliver now became simply a data export into those desktop tools, so we created those data silos again.

Now what we’re finding is working is bringing business and IT together on a common goal. We need to bring the desktop productivity that business people love together with the managed, governed corporate information that IT is responsible for delivering for the organization. We’re talking about sensitive information. It can’t just be out there in e-mail or in file systems or in the cloud. It has to be governed and managed.

We’re seeing a rise of a sort of blend of technology, with desktop tools but connected to the enterprise system, and vice versa.

Is this something that you talk about regularly in your capacity at IBM?

My main talking topic for 2012, actually, is the fact that we are removing what I would call “the sucker’s choice.” It’s that either/or -- either I have freedom or I have control. I’m talking about how you can have freedom and control by integrating the business’s personal productivity environment with the IT environment.

IT is starting to see the businesspeople as a valued data source in their own right who can contribute to the corporate knowledge. For too long, we’ve seen systems as a one-way street, collecting information and delivering it to the business. Businesses actually have a lot of knowledge -- a lot of data that they collect -- that can and should be added to system-captured information. The fuller the picture we can have of the business, whether the information comes from IT systems or from the business itself, the more informed everyone will be.

So we’re finally at a point where we can have both IT control and business freedom of access to information.

I believe we can and certainly at IBM I believe we have the technology to enable that to happen with our clients. It’s really the only way to avoid a dead end; in the old style of either/or choice, both business and IT will eventually dead end. A corporate-governed system can’t survive because it doesn’t give business enough flexibility. They end up working outside the system or creating their own data silos because they have to in order to meet their business imperatives.

The phrase I use is, “Can you have your cake and eat it, too?” Can you have both freedom and control together? It was always a choice before. You either had freedom -- the business people spending lots of time crunching the data and creating little desktop or departmental environments separate from IT -- or IT was delivering corporate data that was more rigid and less interactive than the business would like. Now, you can have both.

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