The Trust Problem That Slows Digital Transformation

Tension between business executives and IT professionals can be managed in ways that build respect for each other’s capabilities — and open new doors in the process.

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Pick up any industry or professional publication and you’ll be deluged with articles extolling the value of digital transformation. Supporters tout new capabilities as do-or-die. “All companies must become tech companies” is a common refrain. “Organizations that speed their decision intelligence capabilities will survive, and those that don’t will fail” is another.

Count me among those who are excited for this messaging. I see enormous potential for new digital capabilities to improve business performance, create more satisfying jobs, and solve some long-standing issues that have proven beyond the reach of methods typically employed today.

Still, adaptation and change remain challenges for most companies. All change, even the smallest, depends on trust. As George Shultz, U.S. secretary of state during the Reagan administration, famously observed late in life, “Trust is the coin of the realm.” When trust was in the room, he wrote, good things happened. Without trust, they did not.

The problem is that, too often, business departments simply do not trust their IT counterparts. Until this problem is tackled and solved, critical initiatives around digital transformation will stall.

IT Is in a Tough Spot

When the topic of trust first came onto my radar some years ago, I began, somewhat sheepishly, to ask people about it. I was surprised by how negative so many businesspeople felt about their IT departments. I heard comments such as, “We really can’t trust them to do anything important,” and “They are the least liked group in my company.” Even during the early months of the pandemic — when IT teams scrambled to bring videoconferencing, online ordering, and other innovations to operations to help save the day — such comments persisted. (One point of light was that while comments would often denigrate departments as a whole, individual IT team members were often appreciated.)

Why is trust so low? I find the following figure, which I’ve adapted from John Roberts’ 2004 classic book The Modern Firm, helpful in understanding how mistrust between business leaders and IT professionals grows and festers.

The idea is that a company (or any department or team) should start at Step 1, by sorting out what it wants to achieve — its strategy — and its business objectives.

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