Solving the Problem of Siloed IT in Organizations

To break down information barriers and drive transformation, business leaders must engage directly with technologists and ask the right questions.

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Frontiers

An MIT SMR initiative exploring how technology is reshaping the practice of management.
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A CEO of a real estate services company came to us recently with a problem. The whole company was waiting anxiously for a new system that the technology team had been working on for over a year. The CEO lamented that the team now needed to do a complete rewrite with a different technology — pushing the project out at least another six months and putting the company further behind its competition.

I could predict the answer to my next questions, but I asked the CEO anyway: What was the IT team’s explanation for the rewrite? Why was it needed now, and what alternatives were there?

“I have no idea,” came the reply. “And I couldn’t possibly ask them — I’m a business leader, not a coder!”

The company was in trouble, and the CEO was falling into an all-too-common trap. In fact, this conversation happens so often in our consulting practice that we have a name for the pattern that underlies it: the technology walled garden.

Keeping the technologists in this comfortable silo can wreak havoc on strategic priorities and trigger a cascade of effects throughout different parts of the organization:

  • Software engineers are very busy within the garden itself — polishing and perfecting their software, fixing bugs, and refactoring code.
  • Technology leaders are very busy defending the garden — that is, protecting engineers and technologists from outside interference and defining best practices.
  • Customer-facing staff members are living a nightmare outside of the garden walls, with angry users demanding fixes and features that never seem to appear and new sales initiatives stalled for lack of product support.
  • Business leaders, like the CEO, may feel like outsiders in the technology discussion, where terminology and approaches are beyond their expert purview, and they are therefore less inclined to intervene. This often forces a level of blind trust in their technology leaders and teams.

There are two singular features of this anti-pattern we’ve noticed. First, it occurs in the most backward and the most cutting-edge organizations with equal frequency. Whether a company is using Agile or DevOps methods, has adopted the latest technical tools and programming languages, or has developed highly skilled leaders within and outside of the technology group, none of these advantages stops our clients from having siloed IT.

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Topics

Frontiers

An MIT SMR initiative exploring how technology is reshaping the practice of management.
See All Articles in This Section

References

1. C. Argyris, R. Putnam, and D.M. Smith, “Action Science: Concepts, Methods, and Skills for Research and Intervention” (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1985), 90-99.

2. C. Argyris, “Organizational Traps: Leadership, Culture, Organizational Design” (Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2010), 17.

3. C. Argyris, “Skilled Incompetence,” Harvard Business Review 64, no. 5 (September-October 1986): 74-79.

4. C. Argyris and D.A. Schon, “Theory in Practice: Increasing Professional Effectiveness” (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1974), 41.

5. D. Squirrel and J. Fredrick, “Agile Conversations” (Portland, Oregon: IT Revolution Press, 2020), and R. Westrum, “A Typology of Organisational Cultures,” Quality & Safety in Health Care 13, suppl. 2 (December 2004): ii22-ii27.

6. D. Squirrel and J. Fredrick, “Agile Conversations,” 83, 87.

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