Is it business that doesn't get IT?

In a column last year I argued that one of the main reasons so many business people embraced Nicholas Carr's erroneous but provocative Harvard Business Review article, IT Doesn't Matter was that it played to some of their deep-rooted fears and anxieties. Simply put: if IT doesn't matter, that means it's not really worth learning about, a reassuring thought to many IT-phobic business people, both at the staff and executive levels.

At the time, this was just a pet theory of mine that was supported by a fair amount of anecdotal evidence. But one of the nice things about running a research group is that you can actually test some of your own ideas. A few months ago, we did just that. We interviewed 400 executives, half from business, half from IT, and all from large corporations. We asked them a lot of questions, one of which was, "Which of the following is the biggest barrier to your company's use of IT?" The four possible answers, and the results for IT and non-IT executives, are provided below.

  • The IT department's lack of understanding of business issues
    CIOs -- 6 percent, CXOs --11 percent
  • Business people's inability to understand what can and can't be done with IT
    CIOs -- 41 percent, CXOs -- 42 percent

By a roughly 5-to-1 margin, more executives said that the real barriers to effective IT usage were on the business side. Less than 10 percent seemed to buy into the familiar complaint that the main problem is jargon-addicted, technology-for-its-own-sake, business-unaware IT professionals. Importantly, these views were consistent, whether the respondent was an IT or business executive.

Does this mean that all the stereotypes about IT workers are simply wrong? Of course not. IT professionals can always improve their business skills, and there are still far too many IT people who would rather tinker with code than make hard business decisions about what their systems should and shouldn't do.

What it does mean is that the real challenge for the IT industry is to create a new generation of business leaders for whom the use and potential of IT are second nature, workers who would never question the fact that sales, marketing, finance and other employees at all levels need to know a great deal about IT simply to do their jobs effectively. As of now, however, too few business executives send this message to their organizations, and far too many still embrace the "IT doesn't matter" mantra as a way of avoiding uncomfortable truths and challenges.

David Moschella is global research director at CSC Research and Advisory Services.

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