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Building Partnership in Siloed Environments

Originally published July 10, 2007

The customer waits. “When will IT finally get their act together and deliver? Why don’t they serve me? Why don’t they understand what I want? I am the reason they exist…they don’t get it!”

The walls of the silos harden. “My needs are more important than that other department. Why should I have to wait for the next release? I’ll just hire my own people and build my own datamart…this is urgent!”
In our experience of working with data warehousing (DW) and business intelligence (BI) organizations over the last fifteen years, we have heard these types of comments across every industry and in most organizations. In fact, there is a pattern of dissatisfied internal customers and siloed organizations that seems to prevail. What’s going on here?

Based on 35 years of research into organizational “systems,” these are predictable patterns that plague most organizations. The way organizations respond to these patterns is the predictor of their success or their dysfunction. At the root of this problem are issues of power, politics, and partnership.

Partnership. Go to any BI conference or seminar and you’ll surely hear conversations revolving around this seemingly simple concept…the partnership between IT and their customers – or the lack thereof. Yet, so many organizations still endure significant difficulty in building lasting partnerships. Why?

To understand what’s happening, let’s begin with a definition of partnership. If you’ve focused on trying to work across silos or strengthen partnerships, you’ve likely engaged in lengthy discussions about the concept. But have you laid out an official definition for what partnership means? While this step might sound obvious or trite, a brief but serious exploration of what partnership means can be quite valuable in making sure everyone is on the same page.

Definition of partnership: a relationship in which we are jointly committed to the success of a particular process or goal. The operative word is “committed.” A commitment is a binding agreement, but it is intangible, an abstraction. As such, a commitment can be difficult to maintain, especially during the harried, day-to-day activities of any company or organization. When “stuff” happens on the job, attention can quickly be diverted, often resulting in commitments being set aside. Everyone knows that stuff happens. While the variety of stuff that happens on any given day is virtually infinite, there are many common occurrences that are easily recognizable. You offer a great idea, but nobody responds positively. You make a simple request, but only get a wishy-washy response. You reach out to invite cooperation, but get resistance instead. You do something nice, but in lieu of gratitude, you get anger.

What happens next is where the trouble really starts. Too often, when something unexpected occurs, people default to making up a story in their head to explain the occurrence. Almost invariably, the story made up is one in which the story’s creator is the protagonist, while the person who acted undesirably becomes the unwitting antagonist. The most prevalent reason why this happens is because people take such incidents personally. They evaluate others as mean, insensitive, or incompetent, then react by getting mad, vowing to get even, or simply withdrawing.

In reality, very few developments in a work environment are intended as personal affronts. This fact, however, does little to deter the story-making process. Whenever stories are being imagined, work isn’t getting done. Not only is work not getting done, but rifts actually widen because of such miscommunications – or non-communications, as we might call them. The end result: commitments go by the wayside.

How people perceive day-to-day happenings in a work environment depends greatly on what position they hold. In an exercise that we frequently conduct for a variety of organizations, we divide the class of sixty people into four groups: Tops for senior management; Middles for middle management, such as project managers; Bottoms for workers such as ETL developers, database administrators, analysts and modelers; and Customers for end users or external clients. We then involve them in a series of faux projects and issue marching orders to get everyone working.

Having conducted this exercise hundreds of times with thousands of individuals, the results are predictable. As we’ve found in our studies of corporate culture, and as we always see in the exercise, the general attitude of Tops, Middles, Bottoms, and Customers tends to gravitate along certain lines:

  • Tops become overloaded with the amount of work and decision-making they must do.
  • Bottoms feel disregarded by their superiors and powerless.
  • Middles find themselves torn between superiors and subordinates.
  • Customers feel neglected and underserved. We frequently hear the comment “How did you recreate the dysfunction of my organization in twenty minutes with a group of strangers?”

Just as those conditions remain standard, so do the consequent responses:

  • Tops tend to suck up responsibility whenever new issues arise, thus compounding their work overload.
  • Bottoms hold “them” responsible for the unpleasant situation in which they find themselves, often blaming management for past failures or confusing directives.
  • Middles let themselves get caught in between Tops and Bottoms, thus losing their own identity and agenda to those above and below them.
  • Customers default to holding “it” – namely, the contractor and/or IT department and/or the DW team – responsible for not delivering what they want.

These predictable conditions and responses are so common that they’ve become ingrained in most corporate professionals. Whether this reality is due to human nature, conditioning, or a combination of both is irrelevant. The fact remains that people do tend to act in such ways. Because these behaviors have become second nature, people don’t even realize what they’re doing. That means they don’t see their responses as choices or decisions, but simply reactions – just as they might react by ducking if something comes flying at them.

Although this unproductive predictability isn’t usually ideal for organizations, recognizing these patterns of behavior makes the path to productive partnership much clearer for BI initiatives.

In our class, we explain the importance of taking a stand in order to achieve successful partnerships. The analogy we use involves two doors, Door A and Door B. Door A takes us to the usual places: if we’re Tops, we suck up responsibility; if we’re Bottoms, we blame the Tops; if we’re Middles, we get caught in the middle and torn; and if we’re Customers, we blame the delivery system for not delivering. In other words, Door A is the pitfall of standard reactions.

Door B is another story entirely. In order to go through Door B, you must take a stand. You must make a commitment not to take the easy route of going through Door A. Going through Door B is much more difficult because it demands that you remain committed to your partnership, even if that means more work or hard decisions.

Here are some high-level stands that apply to each of the four groups in our class, groups that map to virtually every corporate professional in the BI and DW world:

  • Tops: Be a Top who creates responsibility throughout the organization.
  • Bottoms: Be a Bottom who is responsible for his/her condition in the system, and for the overall condition of the system itself.
  • Middles: Be a Middle who stays out of the middle, who maintains independence of thought and action.
  • Customers: Be a proactive Customer who gets in the middle of delivery processes and helps them come to fruition.

While these stands are not catch-all answers, they do provide a baseline of understanding from which to act. Circumstances will always vary, but if you and your team remain committed to your partnerships, the politics, and power struggles can be addressed in order to achieve greater success.

If you are interested in improving your political and partnership skills, check out the next session of our Power, Politics, and Partnership Workshop or e-mail me at mclarry@connectknowledge.com. We’re on a mission to help people conquer dysfunctional organizational dynamics and this is one of our favorite topics!

  • Maureen ClarryMaureen Clarry

    Maureen is the Founder and President/CEO of CONNECT: The Knowledge Network (CONNECT), an Xtivia company. CONNECT specializes in data, technical, and organizational solutions for business intelligence. Maureen has been on the faculty of TDWI since 1998, served on the Board for the Colorado Chapter of TDWI, and participates on the Data Warehousing Advisory Board for the University of Denver. CONNECT has been recognized as the South Metro Denver Small Business of the Year, the Top 25 Women Owned and Top 150 Privately Owned Businesses in Colorado. Maureen can be reached at mclarry@connectknowledge.com or 303-730-7171, ext. 102.

    Editor's Note: More articles and resources are available in Maureen's BeyeNETWORK Expert Channel. Be sure to visit today!

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