An age-old problem in software development has been the communication gap between IT and business staff. This communication gap can lead to misunderstood requirements, project delays, rework, and a slew of other problems that can plague project success. While progress is being made, with particular attention on providing technical staff with an understanding of business context, far less attention has been given to boosting the business side?s understanding of the technical landscape. In this era of Digital Transformation, where virtually every aspect of an organization can be touched by technology, it is no longer an option to have technology remain a ?black box.? Business Subject Matter Experts, and business stakeholders who are involved in the day to day development of software systems, must gain an understanding of the technology and systems involved in their projects in order to ensure a complete communication cycle.
Ironically, modern software development has been focused on trying to bridge the communication gap in recent years -- bringing IT and the business together is a basic tenet of Agile methodologies -- and many attempts have been made to do this: ?put them together in a project room!? or ?have the business attend the daily stand-ups!?. But despite these attempts, the gap persists. Business personnel tend to glaze over when the discussion turns to implementation, (the same way technical staff may lose interest during business-oriented discussion), which in turn leads to disengagement from the conversation. Pulling participants back in once they?ve lost focus can be challenging, and is often the reason behind the high level of disconnect that seems to surface following such discussions.
The problem here is that many of the techniques used to pull both sides together operate on the assumption that people will learn by osmosis. However, in reality, physical proximity doesn?t magically lead to improved dialogue; both business and IT staff may continue to sit side by side in silos, not learning from each other the basic terms and vocabulary that they overhear on a daily basis.
So what does work? How can we start to close this gap? In my experience, the following techniques have helped forge a path toward better communication:
- Take deliberate action, and set aside dedicated time at the start of the project, to provide the business with the background they need to understand the systems they will be encountering. Technology for Business 101. Include diagrams, examples that relate to their world, and answer any questions they may have.
- Provide a ?cheat sheet? or vocabulary list, that business users can refer to, and include definitions that describe how the technology is used on the project. Any Business SME can google ?REST API,? but the online definition will be meaningless to them without project context.
- It?s a common best practice to give the technical staff a demo of business systems and processes, but, the business could also benefit by seeing a demo of how the technical staff uses their systems. Give the business staff a tour of everything from the database, to programming tools, and even deployment tools, and explain how they are used and why they are important.
- Help keep the business engaged in the conversation by defining acronyms or abbreviations that are tossed out, or pointing out when terms from the cheat sheet come into play. Be mindful to not use slang that may not be understood, or stop and take a minute to define those terms.
- Don?t shut down the conversation as soon as it turns to technology. Scrum Masters are notorious for shielding the business from any talk of ?how? as opposed to ?what? and ?why,? and tend to slap wrists even for words like ?service? or ?instance.? But, if the business has been given a basic background and overview of what those terms mean, and how they relate to their project, a far more holistic conversation can take place -- one where both business and technology staff can share a common vocabulary, and a common understanding of the landscape.
Employing the techniques above can lead to stronger engagement from the business, and provide inroads to better communication. The benefits of providing technical staff with business context have been demonstrated, and continue to grow as Agile techniques are more widely adopted. Likewise, the benefits of providing business staff with technical context could prove immensely valuable as well, but only if deliberate action and care are taken to do so.