Why does everyone hate the IT department?

IT workers are treated with thinly veiled contempt in many organisations. But why? Tom Brewster tries to find out.

"Free" upgrades

Software can be another source of tension. Workers will ask: "What do you mean I can't have IE9? It's a free download, how could there possibly be costs? What compatibility issues? What testing? I just want what I have at home." When such requests are turned down, instead of the IT department earning respect as the purveyors of good practice, they're perceived as the "no" men, naysayers to technological advancement in the business.

"I'll tell you the truth about us in IT: when we graduate, as well as the certificate, we get a rubber stamp with no' written on it," Corbett quips. "This is so we can deal with requests faster that's the perception, that IT is a problem, never a solution."

If you think about many of the government projects that have failed, people look at it as if it's IT's fault. But really, how much focus is put on the people and process changes necessary to make it right.

The executives are equally guilty, reading computing magazines extolling the latest tech innovation cloud computing and thin clients being two notorious recent examples before trundling over to IT and demanding support. When those C-levels receive an assessment telling them why the idea is a non-starter, the foulest insults are heard rattling off the office walls as IT again gets the blame.

"You get things such as departmental heads using their own OS to set up a cloud-based system that IT don't know is there," says Corbett. "There will be issues, or they'll ask to get it supported, and IT will say, hold on, we don't even know about this, we haven't got the budget to support this'. The boss says I'm not waiting years for IT to tell me what to do. I'm going to use the stapler and envelope budget to buy something else'."

The blame culture

Moaning at IT about failing to fix a computer or provide support for smartphones is far from healthy, but saying IT is at fault for truly major issues is akin to bank executives blaming cashiers for the financial crisis. It's awfully simple for CEOs to berate IT for big failings. Not only does this entrench people's view of IT as a bunch of useless so and sos for the executives, it handily distracts attention away from where the core problems lie.

"If you think about many of the government projects that have failed, people look at it as if it's IT's fault," Roberts says. "But really, how much focus is put on the people and process changes necessary to make it right? How much focus is placed on the way people are putting information into the systems that manage information properly?"

An old adage known throughout the profession should offer the perfect riposte for under-fire IT chiefs: there's no such thing as an IT project, there are only business projects. "The CEO will spend millions of pounds on something that's too big and ill thought out," says Roberts. "It becomes a big failure and they say oh, bloody IT has failed again'."

"These massive changes are like boiling an ocean," Roberts adds. "Incremental change in many ways is significantly better. You need pragmatism."

Healing the wounds

Is there any panacea for these festering relationships? In many companies, there's evidently a need for greater integration. Put simply, IT deserves more respect in particular, from those in the boardroom. A recent survey from NetApp showed how little IT departments feel valued by CEOs. Almost two-thirds of IT pros surveyed said they had trouble convincing their company directors about the value of a proposed project, regardless of the significant benefits it could bring.

IT is a core part of the business. It should be treated, and act, as such.

To start with, it may be wise to take IT literally out of the basement, and have staff meet with the rest of the business in a more proactive way. Even having them set up permanent residence outside of the dungeon below could lessen the sense of an unconquerable hierarchy, of which IT is at the bottom.

"Certainly, it's a danger having IT kept in the basement," says Martin Ferguson, head of policy at Socitm, the professional association for public sector ICT management. "You're seeing organisations that are putting IT into the basement in terms of its thinking, and not recognising that strategic importance."

To some extent, it would be sad to see the old ways gone. There's something almost romantic about IT as the outsider. Being the underdogs, the unsung heroes, can curiously provide a job satisfaction of its own, even if the average IT worker has to live with being as unpopular as a traffic warden.

But if the divide is too large, if IT doesn't have a presence in the boardroom as well as on the floor, not only will the department suffer, but the entire business will falter. "The role of an IT department needs to change," Ferguson says. "It needs to become more of a strategic enabler and much more involved in information management, governance of information, as well as organisational change, improvement and transformation."

IT is a core part of the business. It should be treated, and act, as such.

IT Staff on TV: insufferable nerds

The mainstream media hasn't done much to ameliorate the negative view of IT departments, even if it's given us some hearty laughs in the process.

The "have you tried turning it off and on again?" catchphrase from The IT Crowd perfectly crystallised the disconnect between IT and the common worker. No doubt T-shirts carrying that quote are adorning many a support worker's torso right now.

Moss, perfectly portrayed by Richard Ayoade, gave us the archetypal IT guy, devoid of any social skills, yet something of a genius. Roy, played by Chris O'Dowd, typified the curmudgeonly IT leader tired of workers' moronic behaviour, while Jen was the IT manager desperately trying to get noticed by the executives ultimately, in vain.

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