Why everyone hates the IT department

25 Nov 2011

IT workers are treated with thinly veiled contempt in many organisations - Tom Brewster finds out why

Traffic wardens, tax collectors, lawyers, (ahem) journalists... the list of occupations that inspire contempt among the public they serve has a new addition: IT support staff.

“Everyone hates the IT department,” an executive with storage and data-recovery firm EMC told us recently. But why is there so much antipathy towards a department that is, after all, designed to help and support workers?

Often interred in the basement, trapped between the rack servers and a bank of screens, the IT worker is cut adrift – both physically and psychologically – from the rest of the company.

Afforded little more respect than cleaners, the widespread belief that IT isn’t an essential part of an organisation is belied by the fact that companies need IT to function. It’s the first department to be blamed when something goes wrong, and the last to be credited for success.

IT is still seen as a bit of a dark art, and some like to cultivate that

So why is IT the most maligned department? Why is there such a disconnect between the enterprise and IT for so long? We try to find out.

A breed apart

One reason for the disconnect between IT and the rest of the company is that IT actually takes pleasure in being different. Like any clique, many in IT enjoy being part of a close-knit gang with their own quirky traditions and interests.

“IT is still seen as a bit of a dark art, and in some ways, technology people do like to cultivate that,” says Katherine Coombs, IT director at outsourcing provider buyingTeam. “Technology is a thing that they don’t need to build into the business too heavily. Sometimes, it suits people for there to be a clear line between IT and the rest of the business.”

In some respects, separation isn’t only desirable, but necessary. Other departments don’t need to know what’s keeping things ticking along in the basement. Why should the accounts team care what’s keeping the datacenter cool, or how the storage arrays are organised? They only want the equipment they use to work.

“Does the person who is handling the backup tapes, and programming bits and bobs behind the scenes need to integrate with the rest of the business? Probably not, because that’s an internal IT operation,” Coombs adds.

It’s when the two are forced to come together, however, that the classic worker vs IT relationship begins to unravel. The service desk is where the first seeds of antipathy are sown. The scenario is a familiar one: worker A has put in a request to IT as his desktop has collapsed under a pile of error messages, none of which he’s bothered to jot down before repeatedly clicking OK.

He waits for a couple of hours with no response, eventually calling IT to figure out what’s going on. A disgruntled IT worker, distracted from his gargantuan list of tasks, says he’ll check who’s dealing with it, since it isn’t in his remit, before telling worker A that someone will be up soon.

When that someone doesn’t appear instantaneously to conjure up an instant fix for his ailing machine, worker A sits back in his office chair and begins spewing out vitriolic curses about IT’s inadequacies to workers B through Z, who join in with their own woe-filled yarns. Thus, employees’ hate of IT is further fuelled by this unjustified ire.

Andrew Corbett, director of the UK IT Association and an IT department worker with more than 25 years of experience, has seen his fair share of broken relationships with workers.

In some cases, he found employees refusing to use the name “helpdesk”, claiming the “help” prefix didn’t apply. “There’s quite a lot of antipathy,” Corbett says. “There is the feeling that IT is almost like a priesthood, living in an ivory tower far away and you have to go to them on bended knee. The sad thing is that they usually mean well.”

What’s more depressing is that in the majority of cases, it isn’t the fault of either IT or the employees – it’s the fault of bureaucratic, convoluted, impersonal systems installed by management, which are left to spawn imbroglio after imbroglio rather than be replaced.

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