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Q&A: Fostering a Better Business-IT Partnership

Both sides are often at fault -- and can lend a hand in healing -- the common rift between business and IT.

“IT does zeroes and ones and the business side does apples and oranges,” says Dell’s Peter Evans about the notorious division that exists in many companies. Healing the IT/business divide can reap benefits for both sides, but what can be done to help the two factions see eye to eye? In this interview, Evans, business intelligence and analytics product evangelist for Dell, discusses some roots of the problem, and potential solutions.

Evans has over 16 years of experience in the field and is an expert in the design, implementation, and delivery of business intelligence and analytics systems for major international companies. He holds certifications from Microsoft, Novel, and TARGIT, and contributes regularly to the Database Journal and online forums, as well as tweeting and chatting on analytics and BI.

BI This Week: You’ve been working in this industry for a while/ What are some of the biggest issues you see when it comes to trying to foster a good relationship between business and IT, with the goal of making BI more successful?

Peter Evans: From my experience, the challenges often lie around dated governance policies. Going back 25 years, IT was tasked with making data more secure within the enterprise. They’ve taken that to heart, producing systems that enforce security but often lack agility. The business, for its part, sees that lack of agility as an impediment to how they work and how they do business. That leads to friction and conflict between the two sides.

I remember a time when IT and business were not two separate companies, essentially -- but in most large organizations now they are in effect separate companies, with separate funding and separate budgets. That doesn’t help at all.

How far back do we have to go to a time when IT and business were more joined?

I saw the start of [the separation] within the military, when I was part of the Royal Navy, so in the late 1980s perhaps. The military at that time ... did not have a separate IT section at all. All of a sudden, though, we started to have specialists being trained in IT to support computers and databases. That was the beginning. If you look to the banking sector, the same thing happened. When the first trading systems started to be global -- we’re talking probably the early 1980s -- corporations were hit with serious compliance checks. ... I think that was when the modern IT department was born, driving IT to become a separate organization within most enterprises.

The two sides have been moving farther and farther apart since then?

It’s now to the point that, when I did contract work in the U.K. for a major retail banker, they had two huge office buildings within the same city -- one building purely for IT, the other purely retail, sales, and organization, but no IT within that building whatsoever. If you wanted an IT technician, they had to drive five miles to get to you. It was because the IT CIO chose to be in a building that far away. It was disjointed for the company, but that’s just the way it was.

What are some mistakes you’ve seen companies make that can be traced back to a poor IT-business relationship?

The first and most obvious mistake within most organizations is misreporting. Within an organization, you have IT, you have sales, and you have marketing. IT tends to control that one version of the truth, providing figures to a particular group of analysts who then provide those figures to the CIO and on up to the CEO. Often, the sales team is working off their own data that they’ve either cobbled together from different data sources or they’ve extracted from something such as [SAP] Business Objects, or they’ve taken from an Excel spreadsheet. ... In that way, they come up with a totally different figure.

The problem becomes obvious at a business review when the CEO says, I’ve been told that we’re making X million pounds or X million dollars, and the sales team manager turns around and says, “Well, actually, no, we’re only making U million dollars because your figures are wrong.” Then they spend the rest of the meeting arguing about whose figures are right.

Is that scenario fairly common?

It’s very, very common. One of the reasons that business organizations have this conflict with IT is that they don’t trust how IT comes up with the numbers. They simply don’t believe that IT understands the business. ... IT does zeros and ones, the business does apples and oranges, and never the twain shall meet. It’s very frustrating to business and it’s very frustrating for IT.

There’s another issue as well. A lot of the success that major corporations have with IT and business getting together and doing things properly, those successes are swept under the carpet, and we see only the bad things. Nobody hears when a BICC (a business intelligence competency center) has managed to deliver business intelligence across an organization.

Look at the statistics: 50 to 70 percent of intelligence application implementations fail, and they fail because of lack of communication. They don’t fail because the software program is broken. These implementations fail because they don’t deliver what the end user wants to see; that’s because of a lack of communication and a lack of trust and a lack of togetherness in a company. The two sides just don’t talk. It really makes me very frustrated.

It sounds like successes are often ignored or overlooked by both the business and IT sides.

Most of them are kept very quiet, yes. Nobody in a company that has spent X million dollars on building a business intelligence system wants to say it’s broken. [Consequently], you never hear about it unless you go to the customer or the end user. The IT team will never tell you it’s broken, even if the customer thinks it’s broken. Unfortunately, the correlation to that is that nobody shouts from the rooftops when it’s a success. That’s a failure amongst both the IT and the business people who do manage to work well together within an organization. There’s just a huge failure to advertise the fact that they’ve been successful in a BI implementation.

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