Management challenges of decoding the IT department

07 February 2013 -


The IT team has its own indecipherable language. But is the nerd lingo necessary – or just a smokescreen for resistance and inaction? Colin Marrs translates

Every profession has its own language. Accountants are experts at bamboozlement when referring to “amortisation” and “net asset values”. Mysterious acronyms such as “ATL” and “ROI” permeate meetings of marketing executives up and down the land. But in recent years, one profession has gained perhaps the worst reputation of all. The increasing importance of information technology (IT) to companies’ bottom lines has left bosses struggling to get to grips with the new phenomenon of “geek speak”.

Managers need to get straight answers from their IT professionals at several key points in the business cycle – when looking to make software and hardware investment decisions, when technical problems develop, and when assessing changes to company structures. “If the IT department can’t communicate an issue without using jargon or acronyms,” says David Elton, IT expert at management consultant PA Consulting Group, “then you have got a solution looking for a problem rather than the other way round.”

Debugging the system

One such example was the work undertaken in 1999 to combat the perceived threat from the Millennium Bug, which IT experts warned could cause widespread computer meltdown. A quick reminder: there were widespread fears of a computer crash pandemic, due to several older machines having internal clocks that apparently couldn’t cope with the year reverting from 99 to 00. When the new millennium dawned, there were a few reported glitches, but the lack of crisis was palpable. Ever since, questions have hung in the air about whether the absence of major problems was a result of the remedial action taken, or merely that the anticipated problems had Been over-egged. Adam Thilthorpe, director for professionalism at BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT, says: “The suspicion that IT people pulled the wool over management’s eyes has fuelled a mistrust of advice from the technical departments ever since.”

CMI member Nitin Kunchur, director of engineering projects and processes at IT security software firm Sophos, says problems can arise when software engineers fail to communicate with clients during the process of working on a project. Pointing to a number of notorious over-running and over-budget government IT projects, he says: “With software development, you discover issues as you go along, and IT professionals need to clearly set expectations that things are going to change.”

Kunchur admits that IT language can sometimes also be used as a smokescreen for inaction. He says: “Occasionally there can be a desire to hide the fact that progress on a project might be slower than expected, or that the IT team doesn’t know what it is doing. Using IT-specific language can be employed to hide those facts.”

Heath Jackson, partner at KPMG Advisory, says: “You see this with almost all large IT change projects – the technical staff can feel threatened by the introduction of a new way of working and lapse into making objections in technical language as a defence mechanism.”

‘Niche culture’

Kunchur agrees, but argues that sometimes IT departments are trying to fend off users who want to micromanage how the IT team designs its solutions. “What engineers need is a definition of the problem and they will design a solution,” he says. “If the customer starts being too specific about how the problem should be solved then the IT professional becomes resentful and might try to confuse the client with technical language to get them off their back.”

Given the inherently technical nature of IT work, it is perhaps not a surprise that the industry has developed a niche culture quite apart from that of other traditional business departments. Problems can occur when the two are cross-pollinated. Several companies have mistakenly promoted IT professionals to management positions as a reward for long service, according to Thilthorpe. He says: “Sometimes these people have a brain the size of a planet, but putting them straight on to a company’s board can be a disaster. By promoting them, you are not only taking their technical know-how away from a role in which it is most useful, but they are put in charge of 100 people baffled by a sometimes bizarre management style.”

Breaking down the language barriers means developing a common language that both geeks and managers are comfortable with. IT lawyer Paul Berwin says IT departments need to be given a clear understanding of what the business needs. He says: “It is a question of ensuring that your IT people are kept in the loop as to what the business priorities are and what the finances will and won’t allow.”

Continuing professional development (CPD) is also key. “IT professionals are well used to CPD because they need to keep up to date with the latest technological changes,” he says. “It is a logical extension to train them in wider business needs.” Jackson’s remedy is even simpler: “Senior managers have to pick the right people to run their IT departments,” he says. “They need those who have technical skills – but who are also able to communicate IT considerations simply to the rest of the business.”

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