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Why IT people don't "get" business, and why business doesn't "get" IT

I'm a business guy, and an IT guy. I get business, and I get IT.

But I used to be a typical IT person who just didn't understand business. Those were the days.

My first job out of college was working at Mobil Oil in their MIS Department. That's Management Information Systems for you kids out there. We started a newsletter to keep our clients, the business people, up to date on all the neat R&D projects and cool technologies we were working on. The year was 1988.

We we were working on pretty impressive applications of advanced technologies, but we just weren't communicating our successes to the business people very well.

The problem was that our MIS newsletter was called "MIS Information." Of course, the business people thought this was the "mis-information" newsletter! Great first impression we made for MIS's very first newsletter for the business. Nice job!

We did have an incredible team of employees and contractors at Mobil back then. Truly amazing, brilliant people, led by great, inspiring managers. We were working on technology that was ahead of its time.

Here's one example: A few Mobil MIS people worked on this tiny little thing that you would wave and it would charge your credit card so you can pump gas. That evolved into a technology called Mobil SpeedPass. It still works today. I wasn't on that project, but my friends were. We had no idea that what they were inventing would become known as RFID. To us, it was just one more cool project at this wonderful company. (Back then, I used to tell people that the big red O in the Mobil logo stood for opportunity!)

Here's another example: I led a team of knowledge engineers that built global expert systems and global knowledgebased systems. Of course, everybody knows that expert systems are known today as business rule engines thanks to some marketeer who dreamed up buzzwords for a living. Years later, after Exxon acquired Mobil, we learned that the expert system applications we built at Mobil were ahead of their time - - they were more advanced than the expert systems that Exxon had built.

We got the complicated A.I. & knowledge engineering stuff. But we missed the simple elementary business things, like first impressions. For instance, back then expert system "shells" were a popular way to rapidly build your applications.

So we went to the business people to show them the new expert system "shell" we were building to save them time and money. Of course, the Mobil executives just didn't understand why all the screens had the word "Shell" in the title. They were probably thinking something like:

"Shell? Why does this Mobil system say Shell Oil in the title? What are they thinking in MIS? Is this part of their mis-information campaign?"...

We meant to say this was a fancy Artificial Intelligence expert system shell (AKA a template) that speeds up coding, saves time, saves money, etc. But we had no clue!

So I learned very early in my career that IT people just don't get business. And I also learned why business people don't get IT: We give them mis-information, and we don't know the competition!

These are true stories about the disconnect between business and IT. I'd like to hear yours! Add a comment and share your funny or sad tale about business and IT mis-understandings.

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Comment by James Owen on February 6, 2009 at 11:58am

Rolo, baby! You really should not allow comments from the unwashed masses to your pleas for cooperation. Especially from someone as massive a myself. :-) I find it interesting that you refer to some of your readers as "kids" - I consider most of the members of of AA as "kids" - including yourself. It's all a relative thing.

But, to your blog: Most universities today have classes in the business department called "Introduction to MIS" where business guys are taught things such as bits, bytes, kilo and mega. Likewise, the Computer Science guys are taught elementary business terms like receivables, competition, marketing, bottom line, net-net profit, etc. Usually each one requires only a 3 semester-hour "baby" course but more could be available.

So, when we say that the IT guys do not understand business and business guys do not understand IT, it normally is not a case of not being able to understand the other group but not wanting to understand. Returning to the discussion at ORF last night: David Butler seems to think that business guys can not understand programming language. Wrong! They just are not being motivated properly.

Backin 2000 or so, I saw Bell South senior business analysts pick up on the 15 rules of boolean logic (including the infamous DeMorgan's theorem) in about 45 minutes. Later, in about 2003 or so, I saw Sales guys at Lloyds TSB bank (whose job depended on the success of the project) learn introduction to Java in one week, JRules the next week, and they were writing and understanding rules AND OBJECTS within a month. I watched in pride as they corrected the uber-geek Java guys on architecture design and rule creation. Motivation - it's a wonderful thing.

Going the other way, I have seen many an engineer quite successfully complete MBA programs (not a 30-hour "executive" MBA but a real MBA program that took 60 semester hours or more) with 3.7 or better GPA. And they were able to use their technical degree combined with a business degree to more than adequately bridge that so-called gap between IT and business. Usually this led to the VP path and lots more money. Again, motivation.

I have had many a talk with "newbies" who wanted to know how to become a KE, Knowledge Engineer. When I pointed to the books that they would need to read and understand they turned a whiter shade of pale and ran into the morning mist screaming something about the insanity of it all. I have volunteered to teach complete KE courses but have yet to have ONE single taker. My biggest disappoint has been in the sloth of mankind in general and the laziness of of programmers in particular. (Besides the misappropriation of the title of "engineer" into "software engineer" when the most strenuous math course was "Introduction to Elementary Calculus" - but that's another blog entirely." BUT, it does not have to be this way.

If a programmer really wants to learn knowledge engineering it is really quite easy. Remember, the very first programmers of rulebased systems were medical doctors, psychologist and other "non-technical" people who really needed something to help them obtain answers to extremely complex problems. If a medical doctor can understand declarative language programming, surely degreed programmers can re-train their way of thinking from procedural to declarative just as easily as they went from procedural to OO where OO is nothing but procedural programming done with objects.

In summation (and you thought I would never get here!): IT really CAN understand business with the proper motivation. Business analysts really CAN understand IT with the proper motivation. To say anything different is to infer that the one or the other group is composed of drooling morons whose only goal is to survive an eight-hour day and a forty-hour week while YOUR group is composed of hard-working, properly-motivated, brilliant, genius-level personnel. If you don't expect very much from a group, you probably will not get it.


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