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The Geek Gap: Do Suits Care?

     This one’s from Minda:

Since The Geek Gap first appeared, Bill and I have given presentations all over the country on this topic. Sometimes we spoke to high-level execs at Fortune 500 companies. Other times we spoke to graduate students, just starting their careers. But we kept noticing the same thing about all these audiences: they were mostly composed of geeks. Even in situations where a suit set up the event and invited business folks, most of the crowd turned out to be from IT.

And it’s not just us. Read the headlines of most technology publications, and you’ll see lots of stories about communicating with non-techies, demonstrating ROI and learning to meet business goals. It’s clear that technologists are expected to care about their relationship with the business side.

Read the headlines of business publications, and it’s a whole other matter. The only articles about technology focus on the new 3G iPhone, and other tech gadgets of the moment. There’s never a word about improving relations with technology people.

I’m the suit in this geek/suit partnership, and that often means it’s my job to stand up for our side when Bill or one of our geek friends goes off on an “all suits are evil” rant. But even I have to ask: Do suits care at all about their relationship with IT?

When we were first selling the idea for this book, we described it as Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus for business-technology relationships. If you’ve ever read the Venus and Mars books, you know they’re written to be even-handed. Neither men nor women are to blame for the breakdown in communications between them; instead the culprit is a cultural gap that leads them to see the same things differently. The two groups have different priorities, and must learn to work together to satisfy each others’ needs.

There’s only one problem: If you’ve ever seen someone in a book store actually buying a Venus and Mars book, I’ll bet you any stakes you like that that person was a woman. The books may divide responsibility for bad relationships evenly between both sexes, but only one *** is reading.

I realize this is a dangerous generalization, but in our unequal society, women tend to care more about long-term relationships than men do. Men generally have more wealth, more career options, more likelihood of dating someone younger than themselves as they reach their 50s and 60s, while the reverse is rarely an option for women that age. In short, when it comes to long term relationships, men tend to have more of the power, and women tend to spend more time and energy trying to make the partnership work.

I don’t mean to suggest that IT is the woman and business is the man in their relationship. OK, maybe I do mean to suggest that. Business has the money. Business has the power. Business, at least in the form of upper management, can cut short a relationship at will by outsourcing key IT functions. IT spends lots of its time worrying about how to relate to business. Business generally doesn’t see the relationship as a two-way street. Like a husband who expects dinner on the table, business wants its needs met, and doesn’t want to worry about what it takes to make that happen.

On one level, this makes sense: IT does exist to fulfill business needs and not the other way around. Much of the talk about business-IT alignment is meant to teach this simple truth, or so it seems to me. On another level, it’s very destructive, because it leads to suits thinking they don’t need to learn anything about IT, or how to talk to technology people.

The question is, what to do about it? There are lots of things suits can do—and need to do—to improve communications with geeks. It would be well worth the effort: They’d get more of what they want from IT projects and support, fewer foul-ups and cancelled projects, less waste, and thus a stronger bottom line.

But how can we tell them when they aren’t listening?

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  • My experience: one of the best starting points to enhance collaboration between business and IT is the BPM methodology and governance. Although this is something about communication culture, a good BPM methodology can map and promote the communication between business and IT. A common framework with high acceptance among all involved areas is a prerequisite for intense collaboration.

    Please look up my corresponding blog:
    Thilo Bischoff: Which basic qualities should a good BPM Methodology meet?

  • To begin with, as you rightly pointed out - it is not a relationship of equals like men/women.
    CIOs are second class citizens in the C suite for the most part - with CFO,COO etc getting to over rule them for the most part.

    Business is the dog and IT is the tail, and dog always should/will wag the tail and not the other way around.

    Second - dog assumes all is well with the tail unless it hurts when it tries to wag the tail. So if things dont work well with IT, Business will know the pain and act on it.

    Third - Geeks are usually smart people who will somehow make things work succesfully, however hard the suits make it to be with budget cuts etc. That being the case, the dog doesnt hurt when it wags the tail and hence never takes notice.

    • Dogs may ignore their tails, but cats carefully clean and groom theirs because they know how important the tail is to their overall abilities and survival.

      The tail gives them the balance to leap great distances and also to land on their feet instead of hurting themselves when they fall. So maybe we need to find ways to make business more cat-like, rather than dog-like.

      (Can you tell we have three cats and no dogs around our house?)

      • From the title itself, i figured you are a  cat person!

        My golden retriever dog was sleeping at my feet when I typed the post - and that led to the dog and tail comparison 🙂

  • I think it really depends on the role of IT within the business.  If IT acts primarily a support function, and does not position itself as something vital to the growth of the bottom line, suits could care less.  If they can, they will ship it to the lowest bidder providing for the service level they can tolerate.

    If suits see IT as a strategic weapon that can ultimately help to generate revenue/marketshare, they will pay more attention.  The current trend of IT folks getting more business savvy is the right direction, because they will be better able to sell their value to the suits and also recognize where they can create business opportunities.

    IT should not settle for being the dogs tail, and instead try to position itself as the hind legs.  This requires a change of mindset from both suits and techs.

    • Wow, bullseye! You're exactly on target. This takes both suits and geeks changing their perspective on just how tech fits into the company picture, yes.

      It's up to the geeks to learn enough about how the business functions so they can make their case properly to the suits that what they do is of major importance to their success. Otherwise, as you say, their job is liable to end up auctioned off to the lowest bidder, which may well be to a hungry third-world company willing to work for far less.

      It's also up to the suits to learn enough about the tech side so they can recognize it's importance in their business model, and therefore the importance of the tech workers role in making everything work smoothly.

      I like your analogy of the "dogs hind legs" - technology is often what drives business forward, so it works. Thanks!


      • I agree that Daniel is right on target with his comment!

        I think there are actualy three phases of business/IT evolution.

        The first phase--think 1998--was Wow! New techology! Let's get it!

        The second phase--which has dominated the past few years--was technology must serve a business purpose, must show ROI, must be subordinate to business goals. This is what many people seem to mean by "business/IT alignment." It's good as far as it goes, and it's certainly better than just blindly getting technology either because it seems cool or everyone else has one.

        The third phase actually takes advantage of IT's ability to help create stronger business strategy, an advantage that the second phase misses. For this, as Daniel says, you have to have IT at the table at the very top levels, and from the very conception of a new initiative.

        Thanks for your thoughtful comment!