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“Bludgeoned” with Alignment? – Geek Gap Article

Your IT job is definitely going to change, and soon you may not even recognize the title it carries, according to an article in Computerworld. The piece talks about IT positions getting “scrubbed of any hint of computers, databases, software development languages or data networks.” This approach is aimed at making it a more homogenized business-oriented workforce, quoting “business/IT alignment” as the mantra. A recent blog entry on TechRepublic lays out the situation pretty well.

The fact is we’ve been, as it says in the TechRepublic blog, “bludgeoned … with the term IT/business alignment for the past few years.” As I have maintained all along, the concept of “business/IT alignment” is an attempt to negativize and completely ignore half of the communication problem – namely, the IT workers – and brand the other half – the suit culture –  as the only legitimate one acceptable in the business world.

There is a real danger to trying to bridge the business/technology divide only by forcing geeks to become more suit-like. Yes, IT needs to get better at fulfilling business goals. But business also needs a more thorough understanding of how technology works (and doesn’t work) and how IT can best factor into strategic business decisions.

But while I reject the concept of just having everyone morph into identical business suits, the fact is the Computerworld article illustrates exactly the problem geeks all need to face. If you’re looking to have a future in the world of IT, then you will definitely need to learn more about how the business side works in order to survive. We can’t counter erroneous declarations of “business/IT alignment” being the only way to go unless we can show that a coexistent duality of geek and suit cultures can still allow for better communications.

The fact is, as many BPXers now know, our tech jobs are no longer something that can be hidden in the geek dungeon or function as a separate entity. But just knowing this and learning a few business terms isn’t enough – we need to really incorporate business skills into our daily work life and find ways to contribute to the development of the business as a whole. There’s an article with some good suggestions on Computerworld aimed at techies learning something about the business world. Even though a couple years old now, the ideas still have validity. It might help tech workers trying to move forward in the coming business world.

Marquette University associate professor Kate Kaiser advises that tech workers should get as much project management experience as possible. You don’t necessarily have to be the one doing the actual managing, she says, just be involved with project teams to learn about management techniques, good and bad. “Even projects that fail are learning experiences,” she says.

According to Golden Gate University CIO Anthony Hill, IT workers have traditionally been managing technology – data centers, servers, software development, software implementation, etc. But that’s not the case any more. “IT will focus more on analysis … and less on technology delivery,” Hill claims. “Moving away from technology management doesn’t take IT out of the picture. It changes what IT does.”

So the trick is, while you’re doing your daily job, continuously keeping up on new developments in your particular field of tech, and learning new skills to add to your quiver, you also need to learn skills and acquire knowledge that pertains to the business world. More importantly, you need to learn as much as you can about the workings of your particular business—what its mission and top priorities are, the biggest threats it faces, how changing market conditions may affect it in the future and who its key competitors are.

Not only that, you have to learn how to look like, act like, and talk like business workers. This may seem trivial, but it’s not. Like any tribe, suits use clothing and language as signals to recognize their own kind. (Admit it, you feel the same way when you see someone wearing a penguin t-shirt, or hear someone say they “grok” something.) Looking and sounding like a suit will help you be in your business counterparts’ “comfort zone”—which can be a big help since this population has traditionally felt uncomfortable around what they think of as oddball geeks.

You need to do all three of these: learn about business, learn the specifics of your own business, and learn how to fit into suits’ comfort zones. Otherwise, no matter how well you do your job, your suit overseers will likely feel you’re not on board with business/IT alignment. Worse, they’ll see you as a geek who just “doesn’t fit in.”

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  • What strikes me as missing in this discussion is the possibility that geeks and suit might actually work together. We’ve proven the value of that in a project that completed Stage 1 last evening. Check out ESME on the wiki. I”m the only suit on the team yet had no problems with the technical folk who were more than happy to listen *because for them I brought something valuable to the table.* It’s not that hard. It requires a willingness, commonality of purpose and desire to make relationships work in the interests of everyone. Kumbaya it is not, value generating it it.
    • I completely agree with you that when business workers and tech workers can find that commonality of purpose, they can indeed generate value far exceeding their individual talents. That’s exactly what this discussion is aiming towards.

      One of the great values of venues like the BPX community is that it brings to the fore experiences like yours, making it clear that bridging this thing we call the Geek Gap can and does build better work environments, and therefore better companies. The possibility of working together is not missing from this discussion at all – you’ve shown that yourself.

      Thanks for the terrific input and shining example!