Bridging the Gap

By Deborah Rothberg  |  Posted 2006-07-20

Geeks Versus Suits: The Great Boardroom Schism

Suits (business guys) and geeks (IT guys) are like oil and water--it sometimes seems like they were just not made to get along.

The notorious fracture between the two groups stems from everything from a misunderstanding of each others roles to a distrust of the others practices, and is to blame for an assortment of ever-present workplace flare-ups.

Dueling departments have been blamed for no shortage of workplace ills, from projects past their deadlines, over budget or abandoned, to dissatisfied customers, wasted resources and misdirected energy.

Thats no small mouthful from a bunch of co-workers with—theoretically—the same goals.

A survey of U.S. IT executives and business managers released in June by Accenture highlighted how far up the ladder this gap exists.

While 73 percent of responding IT executives said they believe they understand their companys business extremely or very well, 43 percent of general business managers agreed.

Meanwhile, nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of both the IT executives and general business managers agreed that senior business managers only understand how to leverage IT either "somewhat" or "not very/not at all" well.

Read more here about IT workers confidence.

Furthermore, 61 percent of CIOs identified a lack of "synergies across business units" as a major obstacle to progress in a study released in February 2005 by the Bathwick Group.

In the same survey, over half (56 percent) of business managers said they believe IT is under-delivering on investment dollars.

But this does not mean that eroding the divide is impossible. eWEEK investigates the historical gap between the battling meeting room sides as it relates to their personalities, approaches to their jobs and goals with a self-appointed geek and suit team with a slew of suggestions on how to make peace between the ever-sparring groups.

Next Page: The geek gap.

The Geek Gap

The Geek Gap

Authors Bill Pfleging, a computer consultant and "dyed-in-the-wool" geek and Minda Zetlin, a business writer, talk about the long-running discord between business and IT people in their just-released book, "The Geek Gap: Why Business and Technology Professionals Dont Understand Each Other and Why They Need Each Other to Survive." They see the gap as less of an attitude problem, and more of a culture one.

"The geek gap is the culture clash between business and IT people in most organizations… Business and tech people dont like each other and dont trust each other. Its very basic to how they do their jobs and their roles in the business," Zetlin told eWEEK.

The authors argue that the divide is all but inevitable; the two groups have different skills and personality types that affect their ability to understand each others goals and priorities.

"The tech worker, the geek, is a problem solver; the businessman, the suit, is a people influencer. The geek likes to fix things, the suit relies more on people skills," said Zetlin.

Geeks and suits also interact with technology differently; the former are more interested in process while the latter are more consumed with use.

"To geeks, a piece of technology is a thing of beauty in its own right, a wonderfully fascinating puzzle. To suits, its a tool that is only worthwhile if it helps them accomplish their objectives.

"The moment geeks are likeliest to lose interest in a project is when its running perfectly (Hooray! Now I can stop working on it!). Thats the moment suits are likeliest to start taking interest in the same project (Hooray! Now I can start working with it!)," said Pfleging.

Pfleging explains that IT and business people differ in terms of career aspirations and lifelong goals, and relate differently to their workplaces.

"Tech people will not identify themselves by where they work but what they do. Its more important to them that they are in the community of, say, Linux programmers or database administrators rather than at the facility where they work. Business people are much more about climbing their companys ladder."

The authors feel that not enough people talk about this problem because its so pervasive; its almost part of the landscape.

"Every place we go and talk to people, these two things stand out. One, that everyone experiences this; they just nod their head. Its not a mystery. Number two is that its just accepted as part of the landscape, as if theres a hill and well just build a road around it," said Zetlin.

Next Page: Bridging the gap.

Bridging the Gap

Bridging the Gap

Pfleging and Zetlin suggest several ways that companies can work to lessen the business-technology divide.

One is job exchanges, where techies and business people try to do the others job for a day.

"This tends to be harder for the business guys. IT guys can go to a business meeting and chime in, but the business guys wont know how to fix a broken connection," said Pfleging.

Companies can also physically organize the office culture so that the groups regularly encounter each other.

"Companies often create a situation where the tech guys dont interact with the rest of the company, cultivating it by putting IT in a basement or a back room. Its one of the worst things you can do," said Zetlin.

Pfleging and Zetlin also recommend cross-functional work teams on any project.

"Its very important for any company to make sure you have a cross-section of various people to make sure you dont miss out on some very good advice. A lot of companies have a business meeting first and then throw work out to the techies," said Zetlin.

Finally, the authors feel strongly that as IT workers now understand the importance of honing their business skills, its in the business guys best interest to understand more about technology.

"Theres an enormous frustration about how little business people know about technology. Its very easy for a business person to say, I dont want to know, but technology really doesnt work that way. You need to know just enough that you can scare them," said Pfleging.

Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest news, reviews and analysis on IT management from

Rocket Fuel