Breaching the gap between business and IT

IT is accustomed to being the technology hare leaving the slowcoach tortoise of business behind. But not any longer. Increased...

IT is accustomed to being the technology hare leaving the slowcoach tortoise of business behind. But not any longer. Increased communication between business and IT is essential for success, says Julia Vowler.

The "them and us" line that divides business and IT can sometimes be regarded as unbreachable. That isn't so, of course, and one of the best ways to ensure that there is a community of common interest and direction is to encourage the free movement of personnel between the two areas.

One familiar place to do this is at the top. Richard Boocock, who took over as director of management information services at industrial gas company Air Products earlier this year, is a new boy to IT. A former general manager of the $5bn company's electronics business division, supplying gases, materials and services to the semiconductor industry, Boocock had governance over the entire gamut of the division, from research and development, engineering and operations, to manufacturing, sales and services.

He can't, therefore, see IT in isolation. Nor, increasingly, can Air Products.

"We operate in more than 30 countries, with 17,000 staff, serving customers globally," says Boocock. "We have to deliver consistent products and services to customers. IT is very important in achieving that.

"We are at the stage now where the development of our business strategy is going to require IT to be built in that strategy from the beginning, rather than the traditional view that IT can come along later and automate a business model already being deployed."

Bringing IT right up to the coal face - as e-business necessitates - is an important reminder that any notions of "them and us" are a dangerous illusion. That's something that Boocock brings with him.

"It's an interesting feeling, being on the other side," he says. One reason for this is that, like all managers of internal corporate functions, Boocock now deals in "funny money", the kind that's only spent in-house.

"In business management I was out in the marketplace with customers spending real money," he says. "Overnight, in IT, I'm now several steps back from real money.

"But, although IT's customers are internal, it can't afford to lose sight of the ultimate customer." They're the ones spending real money with Air Products.

Sometimes it can be hard to see explicitly how spending on IT can increase corporate profits. Boocock's experience in general management helps him to concentrate, therefore, on identifying where and how IT contributes real value to the business.

It's a universal tendency, but "as we introduce more and more information systems to support the activities we do and link them to business strategy, IT tends to get larger and more complex," he points out. Increasingly, therefore, it becomes essential "to define IT projects and understand just where the value can be found".

Exactly how, for example, does a desktop upgrade add to the corporate bottom line?

Consistency in infrastructure, in data architecture, is a goal pursued by Boocock. "I can explain to business customers in business terms why it's important for us to have standards instead of the latest software," he points out.

Or, conversely, Boocock feels he could explain why a "perfectly good" system would need upgrading. Would a distribution manager risk his operation by running trucks for which there were no longer spare parts, poses Boocock?

IT is changing so fast that everything else looks like it's frozen in time. IT is accustomed to being the technology hare leaving the slowcoach tortoise of business behind. Not any longer, warns Boocock.

"Ten or 15 years ago, the contrast between the rate of change in IT and other industries was very stark, but the gap is closing," he says. "The rate of business change has stepped up considerably. Once you could sell the same product in the same way for 10 years at a time."

Not any longer. Product life cycles are decreasing drastically and now businesses continually need to reinvent themselves.

"The level of tension in the organisation is increasing overall. The impact of that on IT is that IT now realises that it is going to have to cope with changing far, far more quickly. Speed is of the essence," says Boocock.

If the downside is that an increasing rate of business change means an increasing rate of IT change to support it, the upside, says Boocock, is that finally business is coming to understand the idea of volatility, so familiar to IT, since it is now hitting them as well. No longer, he says, does business query why IT always has to change all the time.

"I believe it's improving the level of understanding, whereas in the past business people would wonder why IT had to upgrade a system they put in only three years ago," he says.

That increasing sense of communication between IT and business is just the way it should be, argues Boocock.

"I have a foot on either side of the fence," he says. "I can be a bit of a lubricant, a facilitator at very senior level - I can credibly and confidently speak both languages."

IT points towards the way it will be. "In the future the division between the IT organisation and the business organisation will become extremely blurred - one of my personal objectives is to move more IT people into business groups, for example," says Boocock. "Business will become more IT literate, and IT more business literate."

When it comes to "them and us", or black and white, Boocock is, he says proudly, "a greyish blob".

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