Getting to grips with the informal IT organisation

Comapnies don't work according to organisational charts, says Frank Hayes

Why don’t IT people get more respect? On this US Labour Day, things are actually looking better for people who work in corporate IT.

Budgets aren’t quite so tight. Companies are hiring. Interesting IT projects are getting a green light. But when it comes to how our fellow employees think about us, IT work is a train wreck. Users break the rules we set up, ignore the processes we develop and generally act as if we’re clueless in what we do.

But why? As it turns out, it’s not just us.

According to a recent survey by management consulting firm Katzenbach Partners, it isn’t just that employees won’t follow the rules and procedures they get from IT. More than one-third of employees surveyed — 37% — said they ignore company rules when they’ve developed a better way of getting work done.

That thinking applies not just to IT rules, but any rules.

Wait, there’s more: 63% of big-company employees said they wouldn’t waste their time taking their ideas to senior management. And 65% said they rely on themselves and co-workers, not management, to solve business problems as they come up.

Users don’t think management has a clue either. And they may be right.

After all, the big bosses believe in the organisational chart. Users know that’s not how the organisation works.

So does the Katzenbach analyst who ordered up the survey, Zia Khan. He points to what he calls the “informal organisation” — the network of people and processes that don’t match up with the org chart and formal procedures but are actually the way things get done.

You know what that is: employees who cut corners, get their advice from the wrong people, use procedures to do things they’re not designed for. Why? Because cutting corners gets the job done faster. The “wrong” people give more useful advice than the “right” people. And never mind what a procedure was designed for; if it works, it works.

Annoying, aren’t they? Worse still, they make us look bad. We build IT systems based on org charts and management’s version of how business processes work. When those systems confront the “informal organisation” reality, there’s a mismatch. Our systems don’t do what users need.

No wonder they think we’re clueless.

And no wonder we keep getting it wrong. The organisation doesn’t actually operate according to the specs we’ve been given. The users have rewired it — and they keep rewiring it all the time, based on new customer needs, market demands and whatever tricks and shortcuts they can come up with.

But we still design systems to the old, outdated specs. Then, when we discover that the real, functioning organisation doesn’t match the specs, we try to fix the organisation by creating new rules to make it conform. And users just ignore those rules — or rewire their way around them.

We’re wasting everybody’s time. And we don’t have to.

Instead of believing the org chart when we build or fix a system, we could pay attention to how things actually work. If we understand that informal organisation, we can map business processes to it and deliver IT systems that do what users need, not what we think they ought to need.

Then maybe users wouldn’t ignore our rules and processes if they had a better way. We’d deliver their better way.

Over the past few years, we’ve been told that the future of IT work isn’t just bits and wires, that we’ll need to master the intricacies of the business in order to deliver the systems it needs.

But maybe it’s easier than that. Maybe we don’t have to master the business, but just listen to the people who actually know how it works.

If we respect what they know, they might just respect us, too.

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