Mind the gap: why collaboration between business and IT is vital to digital innovation

Many companies talk about innovation and how strategic it is to power their businesses forward – but how it translates in reality might be slightly disconnected. In many cases, we can observe a gap between business and IT, often a literal, physical gap. To enable innovation, key ingredients must be present: diversity of individuals and skills; collaboration and team working; an empowering, agile and creative environment; and a shared vision for the future.

According to McKinsey, 84% of B2B executives say that innovation is important to their growth strategies. The same research found that just 6% of executives say they are satisfied with the innovation processes in their organizations. So then, perhaps there’s room for improvement.

Innovation used to be considered the remit of research and development (R&D). If a company wanted to drive new ways of doing things or to be perceived as innovative, it helped to be at the cutting edge of technology and to invest a lot of money into R&D. With the emergence of digital services and businesses, IT departments moved to a more strategic role to support new revenue streams or to support operational efficiency through automation.

On the other hand, lots of companies started to provide solutions as a service with subscription-based models, enabling the business to experiment directly without needing to involve the IT department and invest too much upfront. Businesses used to have to ask IT to set up complex infrastructures and platforms, and IT was very often “Mr. No-No,” citing lack of time, budget or resources. But that changed. Businesses are now able to buy digital tools and solutions they believe can help them work better and smarter, and they have the money to do it.

The risk is that IT becomes obsolete and is constantly trying to catch up with the business, or for the business to fail to scale or industrialize the solution they need. The depth of shadow IT is a good indicator of the disconnect between business and IT.

What is creating the gap?

I think it’s important to acknowledge the fact that old models need to be rethought. Full outsourcing of IT might have been a good idea a few years ago from a sourcing point of view, with low costs and standardized offshore service centers. If not offshored, IT departments tend to be isolated in dedicated buildings or floors. Sometimes so much so that the IT department has become entirely cut off from the reality of the business, physically as well as figuratively. Which means you can have an IT department that has no relationship with the business and so doesn’t even understand the business they are working for nor the corporate strategy. This leads to wrong investments, tensions between silos and an inability to evolve.

To give a real-world example, I worked on a project for a trading bank that was frustrated at losing trades because of latency or packet-loss issues in the network, so they wanted to determine why their network was letting them down. We did an audit and found that their Southeast Asia-based help desk management had little to no understanding of the business, and their definition of “good” was different from the needs of the traders. 200ms of latency to the help desk seemed fine, but to the bank’s traders, it was like a year: the difference between a successful trade and not. Therefore, they didn’t understand the urgency of an incident ticket complaining about the latency of an access point and applied the standard process to fix it the next business day. There’s that disconnect in stark reality.

Businesses are becoming more and more digital; it is now mandatory to reconnect IT with the business in order to provide better services, quality, efficiency, and most importantly, flexibility to innovate.

So, while research and real-world projects are showing that collaboration delivers results – McKinsey found that innovative collaboration improves productivity by 20% to 30% – companies with the disconnect between business and IT have no chance to collaborate. According to a PwC study a couple of years ago, digital transformation projects often stall because of the disconnect between C-level business executives and IT decision makers: 35% of those polled said a lack of collaboration between business and IT is an existing or emerging obstacle to achieving expected results from their digital technology initiatives. So there is a gap between business and IT, and the gap is growing day by day. It is not too late, but it’s high time to reinstate dialog and break silos to start creating a culture of collaboration and innovation.

How to bridge the gap

In some companies, gaps are so big that IT is afraid of the business, and business considers IT a barrier to innovation. Typically, when these situations happen in private, daily life, the situation is resolved using a mediator, a third party who can listen to both sides and put a finger on the problems.

In the enterprise world, it is exactly the same. Third-party companies with vertical knowledge and IT backgrounds can drive this mediation by organizing learning expeditions, creativity workshops or innovation contests to start enabling dialog and co-creation opportunities.

Digital transformation in an organization always starts at the top, and when a strategic initiative is agreed and laid out by senior management, detailed planning and implementation of the project is best done by a steering committee comprised of people from both IT and business units.

Top-down thinking and a change in corporate culture help identify disconnects and will drive collaboration throughout the organization. Working together and collaborating creates trust among teams and removes silos, the arch enemy of collaborative work.

Some suggestions for how to get business and IT to work together and drive collaboration:

1. Diversity of individuals and skills: It might seem an obvious place to start, but business and IT staff working together can bring different skills and knowledge to the table and drive unexpected results. Stop segregating business units in individual offices and rethink your workplace to become more like a start-up incubator.

2. Empowering, agile and creative environment: Break down organizational silos. The top-down approach is as important as the bottom-up one. Let your employees be accountable and feel empowered to team up with others who can help them achieve their goals. Workers are more productive when they feel that they are delivering value to the company and working on interesting things.

3. Culture of collaboration and team working: This must be driven by C-level execs and applied by middle management, and they must lead by example. This will have a knock-on effect and foster an ongoing dialog between business and IT.

4. Shared vision for the future: A shared vision requires close collaboration between the COO, CTO, CDO and CIO, bringing together the C-level execs tasked with delivering a joint and common vision for the future of the business. Co-create this vision with your employees.

So, change your thinking. Adapt your corporate culture to think collaboratively. And get your teams working together underpinned by technology solutions like the digital workplace and unified communications and collaboration (UC&C) suites, and you will reap the benefits.

Orange can help you drive business value in your company by unleashing the potential of innovation. Read more about how Orange can help you use collaboration to foster innovation, ideas and results.

Olivier Vicaire

Olivier Vicaire has been a business consultant for more than 10 years in Paris and London and is a specialist in digital transformation. With a telecom engineering degree and a Masters in marketing, he manages innovation, digital workspace strategy and user adoption programs to drive digital transformation for the employees of Orange Business Services customers.