By Jeff Roberts
Professor finds bridging the culture gap makes good business sense
They’re the star-crossed couple of the business world. The nattily dressed manager and the rumpled computer expert come from different backgrounds and often seem to speak different languages. When they work together, beautiful things can happen for a business. When the two don’t communicate well, their misunderstandings can lead to disaster.
Enter Professor Geneviève Bassellier, a specialist in information systems at McGill’s Desautels Faculty of Management. In her research, Bassellier acts as a marriage counsellor of sorts between the suits and techies, helping them understand one another and build a stronger, healthier relationship.
One needn’t look far to see the consequences of poor communication. Bassellier cites the example of a major American university that spent several million dollars on an enterprise resource planning system before realizing that it was completely unsuitable for the day-to-day needs of the school’s students and employees.
“Information technology (I.T.) people and business people need to learn to talk to each other more, and that’s where bridging the gap comes into play,” she says. The two groups “have their own culture, they have their own vocabulary and jargon. They just don’t communicate well, as each thinks they can do everything on their own. Nowadays, you need I.T. and business to work together to leverage the opportunities offered by information technologies.”
Bassellier’s interest in effective I.T. practices started well before she began her PhD at the University of British Columbia. Growing up, she heard first-hand about the challenges of adapting management practices to take advantage of new technology from her father, who worked to bring modern I.T. to the Montreal borough of Saint-Laurent.
These experiences and her own research have led Bassellier to believe above all that the creation of “common space” between I.T. and business is crucial for effective information systems within an organization. Now she is sharing her insights with her students at the Desautels Faculty of Management, where she has taught since 2001, as well as with professionals.
While the challenge of fusing I.T. and business practices has interested management theorists for some time, Bassellier’s goal was to quantify precisely what knowledge needs to be shared between I.T. professionals and managers, and how that shared competence can improve a firm’s capacity for innovation and profit.
Funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, Bassellier has worked with 17 different organizations, including financial institutions with up to 57,000 employees, government agencies with 7,000 and utility companies with as few as 200 staff. She has administered hundreds of employee surveys to better grasp how managers and I.T. professionals understand each other’s roles within their business.
She learned that I.T. professionals who were knowledgeable about other parts of the business were more inclined to partner with managers. As for managers, those who had a strong understanding of I.T. were 34 per cent more likely to be good “spouses” and understand the needs of their partners by scouting out and championing new information technology.
In part, these results confirm Bassellier’s belief that the cultural divide between information technology departments and other areas of a business can—and should—be bridged. She advocates a hands-on approach to give I.T. an appreciation of the larger goals of a business. According to Bassellier, these practices—such as having an I.T. person work in a marketing department—can augment more traditional strategies such as “seeding the line,” in which upper-level managers are drawn from I.T.
“It is so important to develop a common knowledge, a common space. Your I.T. staff will not master finance and your finance people will not become I.T. experts, but there will be a common place where the needs of the institution can be defined.”