In this series of blog posts, follow along as we revisit Mark Schwartz’s book A Seat at the Table: IT Leadership in the Age of Agility. Five years after its publication, it’s still highly relevant and chock full of tips, tactics, and learnings. Join us as we follow along with Online Marketing Assistant Lucy Softich as she reads through the book for the first time.
Welcome back! I’ve been enjoying this book so far; I hope you are, too! You might want to start with the first post if you’re just joining us.
In Chapter 2: Kept from the Table, Mark digs deeper into the historical reasons why IT is often treated as if it’s separate from “the business” (everything that is not IT), and how CIOs came to fit within this pattern.
IT as the “Other”
He calls this relationship codependent and abusive, and I would agree, but things are beginning to make more sense. I can see how IT and its leadership got to where they are now, and why these patterns developed, even if they do seem counterintuitive from the outside.
In the early days, when technology was still in its early stages and most people didn’t know the first thing about it, IT departments felt inherently “other.” As Mark describes, they were often in basements, stereotypically manned by, well, men, all of whom dressed and spoke a little more casually than the suits upstairs. They also used jargon that was unfamiliar to the other departments (even though, as he points out, no one goes after Finance or Marketing for using their jargon to clarify things). Executives didn’t know how to gauge what IT was doing or whether or not it was being effective or budget-conscious, and so an unhealthy pattern developed: executives make strict demands, based on very little knowledge, and IT in turn adds levels of requirements that allow them to assert their own control. No one wins. Especially not the poor CIO, stuck in the middle.
The IT Crowd
As I was reading this chapter, I was reminded of one of my favorite sitcoms from the 2000s, a little British show called The IT Crowd. Running from 2006 to 2010, The IT Crowd follows a small IT department at a fictional company. The department is made up of only three people: Roy, Moss, and Jen. While Roy and Moss, as technicians, exemplify stereotypical nerds, Jen lied her way into the position. Although she knows nothing about IT, she has the social skills the other two lack and acts as their liaison to the rest of the company.
Although not all of the jokes have aged well, this show is an excellent example of the exact relationship Mark is describing in A Seat at the Table. The company treats the IT department like almost second-class citizens. They are located in the basement, are not invited to most company events, and are treated with disdain or confusion whenever they do cross paths with other employees. And yet, the company relies on them, and this gives the IT department a certain level of control. They frequently get away with pranks or their own shows of disrespect. At one point, they replace their phones with an answering machine that just says “have you tried turning it on and off again?” In another instance, they manage to convince a room full of executives that the entire internet is contained inside a small box with a blinking light.
Time for a Change
Obviously, the antics in The IT Crowd are exaggerated, but given Mark’s description, they don’t seem that far off. IT used to be relegated to the basement and only called upon when the rest of the company needed something. Both IT and “the business” developed habits to attempt to control the other and protect their own interests, losing sight of the fact that their interests should be one and the same.
However, we’re not in that world anymore. As Mark explains, now most people outside IT have a working knowledge of information technology; it’s woven into their world. Gone are the days of the executives being oblivious to IT’s usefulness, and yet disruptive patterns remain.
It’s time to break those patterns. It’s time to give the CIO and other IT leadership the necessary tools to fix this relationship and truly bring IT and “the business” together. And the key (you might have guessed) is Agile.
I can’t wait to see where we go from here!