Collaborate and contribute vs. order taking and kingdom guarding

I was chatting with a coworker yesterday about the various kinds of IT work environments that we've been in. It was largely in the context of the kind of influence we have, depending on our career stage. I was making the point that it's easier to "sneak in" the right things when you get further along, a perk that I've enjoyed a bit in recent years. There is definitely a difference in the flavor of environments that are out there, ranging from the full-on IT-as-innovator shop to the stodgy old heads-down status quo.

When I say "IT," really I mean the software end of things. The hardware and infrastructure side of things is a different beast, though this is slowly changing as more companies adopt a devops world of virtualized everything and stop buying racks full of silicon that they'll eventually throw away. On the software side of things, there tends to be two m.o.'s at play, and it's striking how infrequently the shops fall somewhere in between (at least in my experience).

The first is the world where IT is a collaborator and contributor to the business. Good ideas come from everywhere. The IT people are engaged and understand the context of the business, so everyone from a junior developer up through management is able to identify an opportunity and suggest it to the other parts of the business. Those other segments embrace the ideas, and together the ideas are refined to turn a drip of awesomesauce into a steady flow. These are the companies that end up doing truly great things.

The other end of the spectrum is where IT is relegated to a customer service organization. Its intention is to take orders as they come along, and guard the kingdoms that they've set up. The other business segments aren't interested in getting ideas or innovation from IT, and IT is happy to just keep its head down until called upon. It will tell the business "no!" because of "security!" and other reasons that sustain its kingdoms. People are hired not for their ability, but because they can conform to this model and not ask too many questions.

I don't have to explain which scenario is better for any business, but the cultural leap to get from passive IT to full collaborator is not an easy one to make. The old stereotypes of the socially challenged guys in the basement who set up your printer are hard to shake. It isn't just the perceptions outside of the basement either, because there's a self-fulfilling prophecy among many software workers that, "This is where we belong." But consider this: The software people of the world are indexing the world's information (Google), making social interaction more global (Facebook), teaching cars to drive themselves (Tesla)... why would you not want the same kinds of forces that are changing the world changing your business? If you don't enable this culture, your competition will.


  • This is an excellently written article! And I have to relate. Change is hard. You aren't going to find it in an organization where everyone is steeped in the safety of that paycheck. It will indeed come down to having the competition (the ultimate) motivator to nudge you in the proper direction. :P

  • It sometimes seems that only IT is expected to become more collaborative; the rest of the company carries on sending orders.

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