Retail Confronts IT Culture Clash

FRAMINGHAM (02/04/2000) - An IT developer working for walked into her general manager's office one day and proclaimed, "I can't take it."

She was frustrated that her applications weren't retested and bullet-proofed the way they typically are at traditional information technology shops, recalled Bob Schwartz, executive vice president at Nordstrom Inc.'s online retail unit.

It's the kind of culture clash that happens as speed-driven dot-com units increasingly work with brick-and-mortar IT departments that are more accustomed to building rock-solid systems.

"The clashing is around egos and jealousy. Some of the people on the legacy side feel they're being left behind. They're not part of the front-line glamour," said Howard Rubin, a research fellow at Stamford, Conn.-based Meta Group Inc. "And the people on the e-business side - they're stuck in the little world of arrogance."

Culture clashes? "They come up all the time. They get worked out," said Jaake Jacobson, vice president of Internet technology at "To be quite frank, we knew that was going to be an issue going into this."

It helps that the leaders at and Federated Systems Group - the Atlanta-based technology arm of parent Federated Department Stores Inc. - share the same vision, Jacobson added. located its cyberstore staff in San Francisco to have a better shot at attracting talent. But the dot-com operation funds 15 staffers who work for FSG and plans to add another 20 FSG staffers to the San Francisco operation.

Those FSG staffers program connections to the host systems and serve as liaisons and advocates on the dot-com's behalf, Jacobson said.

"I think it was the best way to handle the situation, given the potential for the natural conflict that exists between IT and rapid application development [groups]," Jacobson said.

"Rapid application development is not part of the vocabulary of the traditional IT organization. You're creating stuff in a hurry and putting it up on a Web site and fixing it later. It's not the way these guys are trained," he explained.

Mary Jean Raab, a senior vice president at Borders Group Inc. in Ann Arbor, Mich., acknowledged that culture clashes do exist - "between the online people, between the finance people, the IT people." But she maintained that the national bookseller has been able to manage the clashes by using leadership meetings and team meetings to ensure that each group works collaboratively.'s Schwartz, who has a separate IT staff, said traditional IT departments have big responsibilities and react to priorities set by the business managers. Dot-com staffs have to move faster than that, always "pushing, learning and changing with the times," Schwartz said.

Classic IT staffs will need to reinvent themselves now that more than 50% of IT spending is outside the control of the IT shop, Rubin said. They will need to change their focus from systems maintenance and support to systems transformations and systems integrations, he said.

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