Shrinks, Sages and Suits

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New perspectives on corporate roles add dimension to the study of IT value.
Technology, society, and commerce are longtime partners. Since the beginning of time, technology has been integral to human progress. The industrial revolution is marked by significant gains in productivity, which was largely driven by advancements in management science and technology. For the last fifty years though, progress has been limited more by a dearth of valuable and timely information than by physical and mechanical challenges, which places computer information systems in the spotlight. The proper application of computer systems can mean the difference between success and failure in many industries and fields that impact all of society.

With this kind of history, it would seem that technologists and their associated functions would be much adored and celebrated. Yet, much like the mutual incomprehension between humanists and scientists in higher education identified by C. P. Snow, IT professionals and their departments are often maligned by their non-IT counterparts. This well-known relationship gap between non-IT staff (known in corporate settings as the “suits”) and IT staff (referred to as the “geeks”), has been described by researchers as an organizational crisis, and was the subject of a study recently conducted by Arthur C. McAdams, Ph.D. McAdams spent thirty years in corporate IT roles ranging from computer programmer to chief information officer before moving on to academia in 2006 when he was appointed senior lecturer at the University of Bridgeport.

shrink_400While his initial study was directed toward the relationships between the users (suits) and IT service providers (geeks), McAdams realized that the central problem was that neither party could measure the value of IT services in any mutually agreeable way. Traditional financial metrics failed to measure the value of knowledge work. Improvements in product and services based on new IT functionality had no meaningful measures, and efficiency gains appeared to be incomplete, hard to quantify, and misleading.In his exploratory study at a multinational corporation, McAdams conducted interviews, focus group discussions, casual conversations, and impromptu dialogues during observations to better understand the perspectives of participants in the study. As noted in existing research, he found that IT valuation was subjective. However, IT valuation in this study was differentiated between the three primary organizational functions (marketing, operations/IT, and finance) instead of the typical two parties (IT or non-IT). The categorization of attributes and attitudes that formed the three categories, which McAdams labeled “shrinks,” “sages,” and “suits,” is derived directly from participants as they described themselves and their colleagues.

His findings: the marketing “shrinks” view customers as the primary stakeholder, so they respond immediately to any market condition using any means necessary. To them, anything less would damage the brand. They have a sense of urgency and promote speed-to-market. “Shrinks” are not interested in engineering and financial matters, which they view as necessary, but subordinate, functions.

There was an overwhelming consensus among the study’s participants that their misalignment is related to the three perspectives, creating tension and a relationship gap.

McAdams found the IT “sages” to be perfectionists. They despise imprecision and workarounds, and are not swayed by the crisis du jour. They insist on quality time to design the perfect, elegant, and timeless system. They are unyielding and care about the integrity of the system more than the immediate needs of customers and shareholders.

The rational, pragmatic, risk-averse finance “suits” round out the troika. They answer to shareholders so they impose metrics on “shrinks” and “sages” to ensure that “shrinks” do not “give away the store” and “sages” do not waste money on grand technology ventures. Much of their energy is devoted to mediating contentious negotiations between shrinks and sages.

McAdams cautions that as simple as these descriptions may appear, there was an overwhelming consensus among this group of participants that their misalignment is related to these three perspectives, creating tension and a relationship gap. In the past, the parties had fondly described conflicts as “family squabbles.” While uncomfortable, they were tolerated because the parties acknowledged the contribution of every perspective, and could agree that, in the end, their differences made them a stronger team.

Researchers have noted for years that perception represents reality in service functions. Yet with such a wide range of perceptions, it is little wonder that no single group will ever be satisfied with IT services. In this study, McAdams hopes he has added an important dimension to the study of IT value as an integral part of organizational performance.

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