C. Warren Axelrod

Business-Technology Alignment

My doctoral dissertation “The Allocation of Computing Resources in Organizations with Semi-Autonomous Users” and subsequent book “Computer Effectiveness: Bridging the Management-Technology Gap” focused on communications between information technology professionals and business management and the optimizing of the use of computer resources through management and control.

Fast forward some forty years to a September 26, 2018 article “Why IT-business alignment still fails” by Minda Zetlin available at https://www.cio.com/article/3307873/it-strategy/why-it-business-alignment-still-fails.html Of course the timeframes are entirely different. Zetlin compares the results of a 2012 Capgemini survey, which indicated that 65 percent of senior executives thought that business executives and IT leaders had the same understanding of IT’s role, to a 2018 survey that showed only 37 percent. Zetlin concluded that the big drop could be explained by the following factors:

  1. The pace of change is tough on everyone
  2. Having a seat at the [executive] table creates new challenges
  3. IT leaders lack the communication skill to match their new status
  4. Digital transformation marks a new phase of a familiar cycle

She suggests that these factors must be addressed to improve alignment. I agree. But I also come back to my original concept, which is that we need people well-versed in technology and business to act as ombudsmen to bridge the gap between management and technology, including cybersecurity and data privacy.

In an earlier column, I suggested that law and policy makers should be required to take an extensive and intensive introductory course on computer technology and cybersecurity. That is in addition to having intermediaries on hand to translate conversations between techies and others. This lack of communication has led to a variety of problems—the most recent being the disconnect between Silicon Valley and Washington, D.C. We really should not be relying on brilliant young engineers to determine cultural norms as they develop and evolve their latest systems. In my experience, many such developers do not have much idea about information security and haven’t a clue about privacy. Many was the time when developers would request that I should just to tell them what to do and not go into any details of security and privacy laws and regulations in which they had very little, if any, interest.

While, after all these years, I still believe that it is easier, and better, to train an engineer in business and legal and regulatory requirements than to try to teach business folks about the technologies. But you still need to find individuals who have strong technical backgrounds and are really interested in learning the business side. They are hard to come by. But the effort is well worth it.

There are many excellent programs at colleges and universities, both at the undergraduate and graduate levels, which are designed to teach engineers business and managers computer technology. And these are a great opportunity to jump start corporate programs. Also, having trainees spend rotations in both business units and technology departments pays dividends.

It is distressing to learn that we appear to be no nearer to closing the management-technology gap than we were almost half-a-century ago and that the gap seems to be widening rather than narrowing. As we enter burgeoning new fields, such as robotics and artificial intelligence, we must also include experts from other fields, such as behavioral economics, psychology and sociology, in the design and testing phases of new systems. The privacy issues that are now plaguing Facebook, Google and others, might well have been avoided if those knowledgeable in security and privacy laws and regulations had been involved from the outset and had been given the authority to insist that their requirements be taken into consideration throughout the system development lifecycle.

It is far better to have cooperation among all interested parties from the get-go than to just plough ahead and end up with the possibility of huge fines, such as those potentially facing Facebook in Europe, where fines could potentially add up to billions of dollars for infringing data privacy laws and regulations.

Unfortunately, it seems that we have to go through negative experiences of large fines and tight restrictions before the importance of cooperation and consensus is recognized and adopted so that costly conflicts can be avoided. Would that it were different.

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