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InfoQ Homepage Articles Bridging the Understanding Gap between Business and IT

Bridging the Understanding Gap between Business and IT


Key Takeaways

  • According to a report by Dynatrace, 49% of CIOs believe that a situation when business and IT teams work in separate “silos” is the biggest blocker for digital transformation. 
  • The key to achieving a competitive market advantage in 2023 is close cooperation between the IT and business teams. 
  • Crucial benefits from effective business-IT communication are a better time to market and reduced digital friction.
  • There are some proven methods you can implement and rules you can follow to improve the relationship and understanding between business and IT in your company.
  • Most of these tips focus on building relationships and avoiding stereotypes.

Good alignment between business and IT is crucial if you want to make sure the technology supports the company's strategy as well as it possibly can. New tech - while often exciting - isn't exactly cheap. If it doesn't help you reach your business goals, what's the point of even investing in it at all? 

The scenario I outlined above can happen when business and IT aren't properly aligned. Sometimes software developers create an application or system according to an outlined specification but, for some reason, the solution doesn't work as well as managers hoped it would. This is often because a crucial piece of information wasn't properly highlighted. 

Image source: Dynatrace.

According to a report by Dynatrace, 49% of CIOs believe that a situation when business and IT teams work in separate “silos” is the biggest blocker for digital transformation. Long story short, it's important to strengthen the cooperation between teams - and remember that the IT department should be seen as a business partner instead of a “vendor”. Better communication and cooperation between business managers and the IT department results in software solutions that fit the needs of the company more effectively.

Crucial benefits from effective business-IT communication

There are a couple of crucial benefits a good IT-business relationship can offer your project and/or company.

Reducing digital friction

With good business-IT alignment you can reduce so-called "digital friction". You can define it as unnecessary effort that the employees have to exert in order to use technology in their work - additional things they have to do instead of focusing on doing their job. 

Basically, an IT Manager who understands the company's business needs will be able to communicate these needs to their development team. Thanks to this, they'll be able to deliver a product that is easy to use for the end customer. And this is really important, since according to Flexera (via Finances Online), 37% of IT initiatives by companies worldwide are focused on improving customer experience.

Better time to market 

Without good business-IT alignment, software engineers have to change their software solution several times, until it finally meets the business requirements well enough. When the IT manager keeps a close relationship with business leaders, the development team has better access to end users' needs . One of the premises of agile development is that neither the business nor the developers know what the real need is until they see how a real customer uses the software.  Close business-IT collaboration helps create an environment of rapid customer feedback. Thanks to that, the IT team is able to deliver a product much faster - and therefore cheaper.

Fast time to market is incredibly important nowadays. It's an essential factor when it comes to building competitive advantage and this trend only accelerated with the rise of Covid-19 pandemic. Statistics from 2020 showed that 38% of executives planned to use technology to get ahead of their competition, and another 19% wanted to refocus their entire business around digital technologies.

Image source: McKinsey & Company.

10 practical tips that will help you understand each other

Despite these obvious benefits, some companies still don't have a consistent strategy for their business-IT alignment. What's more, sometimes even the most experienced IT managers don't know that they make mistakes in product management and communication with business leaders. This is why it's sometimes worth approaching this issue more objectively, and getting to know the perspective of the both departments. 

Fortunately, there are some proven methods you can implement and rules you can follow in your company to improve the relationship and understanding between business and IT. 

Focus on the relationship 

If you want to build successful cooperation, you have to form close relationships with business leaders. The key is transparency about their business goals.. The IT manager should be familiarized not only with the application's specification, but also other details. They need to know the intended target group, and the way it's going to be used. They also need to understand the business needs it's supposed to meet.

One proven way to achieve this is organizing workshops (either live or on video calls), especially since more and more companies decide to work remotely which tends to reduce the personal contact. An in-person meeting usually allows you to reach an agreement much faster than a neverending exchange of emails, and the same goes for work on documentation, which can take months. And, let's not forget, it's also a great way to build relationships between people.

Also, never forget about reciprocity. For example, if marketing or sales departments want to quickly change the app or website, because a feature misleads their customers, try to assist them and not react with frustration. Problems that affect clients need to be solved first. When the situation turns around, and bugs happen - and, let's face it, they're inevitable in any IT project - the business managers will be more understanding. Remember, we're all human, and we all make mistakes.

Avoid stereotypes

I assume you wouldn't like your software developers to be treated as “code monkeys”- people who just see code and can't understand customer needs. It works the same way in the other direction. Don't treat people from different fields - the ones you call “business people” - with condescension, just because they aren't engineers.

Of course, each party has its own priorities. Marketing or management teams want to meet the company's business goals, and IT wants to provide a quality technological product. But if everything is to work well, we need mutual respect, not hurtful stereotypes

Focus on requirements

Since I've already mentioned differences in priorities - it's also worth remembering these when you start working on a new project. Sometimes, an offer and marketing message prepared by business teams sound very simple, but when IT professionals analyze them, it turns out there are tons of entries, dependencies and algorithms to enter. 

Long story short: something that looks obvious at first glance will not always be easy to program. What's more, sometimes each and every person in the marketing department writes the same requirements in a different way. I've even seen this happen in really big corporations.

For this reason, requirements should be precisely specified. A good documentation can help here, if it's written in one way that is understandable to the entire IT department. It's best to use a matrix and a requirements template in this process. 

Paperwork, even well-prepared, can only go so far, however.

Some of the needs can be very difficult or even impossible to define in a written specification. In such a case, I advise you to try a more adaptive approach and work with a tighter team.  Often, people get irritated when they have to discuss small details several times. However, believe me that these talks and details are necessary for the project.

Choose the right team and communication style

One of the most frequently asked questions is: should business departments be familiar with technology? Or is it worth it to invest in a Project Manager who will be responsible for talks with the IT department on behalf of the business? To provide you with an answer, I'll use examples from my own work - projects for two well-known telecommunication companies.

One of them decided that the communication between business and IT will be handled by two Project Managers: one on the IT side, and another one on the marketing side. The advantage here was undoubtedly that the marketing department didn't need to know the technical language to present its business needs. It made things much easier in some circumstances. However, it also meant that there were clear communication bottlenecks - every question and doubt had to be answered and explained during conversations between these two people.

The management board of the other company had a different idea. They wanted the people who create the offer to cooperate directly with the specialists who'll implement it. This meant that more team members had to actively communicate with the other side. It resulted in a much better effect overall, and much faster time-to-market. However, it's worth noting that in this case, everything depended on good alignment between those two teams. If cooperation wasn't this smooth, things could get very complicated.

Involve developers at an early stage of the project

Always ask the business/marketing side to involve your software developers at an early stage of the project. They should take part in conversations about the business goals that this project is supposed to fulfill and the problems it is supposed to solve. This way, the developers will know what they're implementing and for what purpose, and you'll avoid misunderstandings. 

However, it's also worth noting that it's pointless to include them too early. Involving IT professionals while business departments still discuss the basic concept is a waste of time.

 Concentrate on fast feedback

Collaboration and fast feedback are essential. IT specialists who work closely with business people have better access to customers and a deeper understanding of their needs. This allows them to focus on adapting business requirements and needs in an appropriate way. It certainly smooths the flow of development.  

Avoid changing fundamental requirements

It's important to understand that managers sometimes don't know how much work is required to implement a change that seems very small to them. Good communication allows them to realize that if  the vision is constantly changing, the work takes significantly longer. This, in turn, means the costs increase. Remember to always identify early the areas of the product that will be hard to change - for example, things that impact its underlying architectural structure. They should only be changed if there is a very strong reason (architecturally significant non-functional requirements per Kruchten, such as performance, security, reliability etc). 

However, your IT team should be able to implement some types of changes rapidly and frequently. Particularly, the elements of the product where "I will know it when I see it" is a real and valid approach to requirements elicitation. My advice is to communicate to business leaders which product elements you can change easily and which of them need to be correctly specified in advance. This will help you avoid significant changes in the middle of the project. 

Use Agile methodology

Agile methodology is one of the best ways to set up cooperation between business and IT. Verification of individual stages of the project and implementation of changes at the earliest possible stage is much cheaper and there's less possibility of costly mistakes that'll result in additional work for the developers.

 Delegating a business leader to work very closely with the Agile team, or even join it directly, is also a good idea. Such a person will be up to date with all the changes, and can constantly control whether the emerging technological product meets business expectations.

Help them see value in new technologies

Some companies do not see the benefits of investing in IT. They only see additional (considerable) costs. This is because companies often prefer to invest in something that brings them profit in a short period of time. However, it's worth remembering that even if the cost of new software is high, it will pay off in the future.

The development of technology in a company must be considered strategically - you have to look at it from the long-term perspective. You usually don't create software to save money at present, or generate revenue in the very near future, but it can be very beneficial in the long run. In 2022, digital transformation is key to the development of a business. Help the other departments see value in IT-related investments. It'll also make them appreciate your team more.

Share your IT specialist's advice

As an IT leader, you  are responsible for reporting on breakthrough technologies that could lead to increased enterprise productivity. It's worth remembering that business leaders have the right not to know all the possibilities offered by the latest technology.

It's also a good idea to offer technology-related insights to the business team. For example, if  you see something can be done better, then it is certainly worth at least explaining  it to non-technical folks so they have a chance to compare approaches and make wise decisions. Remember that great IT specialists aren't just programmers - they are people who come up with the best tech solutions tailored to specific business needs.

The summary

Technology is essential to achieve a competitive market advantage in 2022. The key to success is close cooperation and understanding between the IT and business teams. This is why it's so important to create a strategy that will help you achieve effective business-IT alignment. It's really not that hard, as long as you remember a few simple rules and steps to go through. Consider implementing them in your business - it'll help you save a lot of time, and avoid frustration down the line.

Business-IT alignment - quick guide

Here's a quick recap of all the important rules you should follow to keep a healthy IT-business alignment in your company:

  1. Focus on the relationship - build a healthy relationship between the IT department and other teams
  2. Avoid stereotypes - neither side should use hurtful stereotypes
  3. Focus on requirements - define requirements in a clear and logical way, and focus on implementing them
  4. Choose the right team and communication style - find the right people and consider how you want to organize communication between the teams
  5. Involve developers at an early stage - make sure your IT specialists are involved early to avoid simple mistakes
  6. Concentrate on fast feedback - better access to customers smooths the flow of development
  7. Avoid changing fundamental requirements - explain to the business people what can and can't be changed easily
  8. Use Agile methodology - consider the Agile approach, as it helps achieve goals easier and faster
  9. Encourage investment in new technologies - help business people overcome the fear of new technologies. Remind them it's a long-term investment, and not something that brings profit in the short-term
  10. Share technological advice - share your technological knowledge with the business side every time you think it can benefit them.

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