Book Excerpt: Business communications

Excerpted from The Executive’s Guide to Information Technology: 2nd Edition with permission of the publisher, John Wiley & Sons Inc. Copyright © 2007 by John Baschab and Jon Piot of Technisource. This book is available at all bookstores, online booksellers and from the Wiley Web site, or call 800-225-5945.

This chapter addresses the frequent failures in the day-to-day working relationship between the IT department and business users. This failure to work well together occurs at all levels of organizations—from IT management to IT staffers and from senior business managers to systems users.

Why This Topic Is Important

A key cause of IT ineffectiveness is the inability of IT personnel to work well with the business side of the organization. Sometimes IT leadership and staff fail to communicate clearly (or at all) with the business leaders and users and make little or no attempt to understand what is important to the business. The business leaders begin to ignore the IT department and make key decisions impacting IT without input from the IT department.

Failure to resolve these issues results in a variety of negative outcomes for both the IT department and the business units. The IT organization usually becomes more insular and internally focused, withdrawing even further from an effective relationship with the business. The business and other functional units, in the meantime, reduce their reliance on IT by hiring their own IT personnel and creating their own internal IT departments to compensate for the shortfall in service.

This is usually the beginning of a downward spiral in the relationship between IT and the business. IT staff complain that they are often brought in after the fact on key business decisions and are bypassed by the business on new projects, which are then later turned over to IT to support or, worse, "save." Applications and hardware that do not adhere to standards or architecture cause major irritation and skyrocket support costs. The business maintains that IT neither understands nor attempts to understand business priorities and uses failings in IT to further distance itself from any attempts at reconciliation. The result is an IT department struggling to remain relevant, and business units making one-off suboptimal decisions on IT matters that do not fall within their knowledge or specialty area. This scenario is one of the principle ways that companies wind up with the heterogeneous environments described in Chapter 6, and the symptoms described in Chapter 2.

Benefits of Improving the IT/Business Relationship

A solid relationship between the IT department and the rest of the corporation is critical for both IT personnel and IT unit success. It is also imperative in order to transform IT from an under-used, unappreciated cost center to a proactive, highly regarded business enabler. The most notable benefits include:

  • Ability to engage at the senior management level on both IT and business issues.

  • Improved ability for department to endure difficult times.

  • Ability to sell technology initiatives to the business.

  • Greater IT employee satisfaction, alignment, and productivity.

  • Increased ability to attract and retain talented IT people.

  • Increased success of technology initiatives.

  • Increased use of corporate IT department.

A good relationship enables most of the abilities that are required to run a successful IT department, thus, improving and managing the IT/business relationship is a necessary condition for success.

The relationship can actually be measured using specific factors that influence the strength/weakness of the relationship. These factors include:

  • Reliability: The degree to which the business believes that products and services are delivered with reliability (activities and services run when they are supposed to).

  • Quality: The degree to which the business believes that the products and services are delivered with quality (requirements met, professionally engineered, etc.).

  • Appeal: IT personnel are generally liked from a cultural and intelligence standpoint.

  • Leadership: Degree to which the IT leadership provides vision, business value, and builds a high-performance team.

  • Management: Level to which people respect the IT management team and their ability to manage processes, procedures, and personnel.

  • Customer focus: IT cares about users and results, not technology; strong commitment to deadlines.

  • Employee quality: The level of overall talent of the IT employees, their fit culturally with the rest of the company, and communication skills and performance.

  • Financial performance: Ability to manage budget, limit or eliminate project cost overruns, and deliver IT portion of ROI promises.

  • Satisfaction: The overall level of satisfaction with IT performance experienced by the business.

Without acknowledging that the above factors influence the overall relationship between the IT department and the business units, it is difficult to develop specific improvement initiatives. The first step in improving the relationship is an audit of these factors. Grade each factor and set the baseline. Then develop goals to improve the weak factors. We discuss specific items that can dramatically improve the relationship by driving these factors.

How to Improve the Relationship between IT and the Business

In a March 2002 Information Week article titled "IT’s Rodney Dangerfield Complex," Tischelle George highlighted the difficulties that many IT departments experience in working with the business. The author quotes the recently promoted CIO of a major corporation, who perceives as one of his biggest challenges overcoming the fact that the IT department "gets no respect" from the business. In fact, the article continues, "IT was left out of business-process or technology-related discussions."

Set Goals for Each Level of the IT Organization

For each level of the IT organization, set goals and activities required for the next performance cycle. Divide the organization into levels appropriate for the unit. For example, one might segment the unit into four levels as follows: (1) the CIO; (2) the direct reports/senior managers; (3) the project managers; and, finally, (4) the analyst, operator, programmer, and DBA level. For each of the four levels, specific "business relationship" goals would be set. Taking the CIO as the first level, set goals around the factors that the CIO can affect. These include leadership, management, customer focus, and financial management. The CIO has the greatest influence in improving these factors, so specific targets should be determined. Additionally, activities that strengthen the IT/business ties should be detailed. Some examples include: The CIO will meet every two weeks with each business unit leader individually; meet every month with the IT steering committee; will tour one plant, five customers, two suppliers, and one functional department each quarter; will sponsor the IT newsletter; and so on. The CIO’s direct reports have the most influence over management, quality of employees hired, and project reviews—goals around these factors are appropriate. Example goals for this group might include: executing the customer (end-user) satisfaction survey in January and June, meeting monthly with at least one business unit leader, ensuring 100 percent of project reviews are completed at project completion, and so on. Other levels in the organization should have business communication and activity goals as well.

Improve Social Interaction with the Business

One of the major causes of communication disconnects between the business and IT is a lack of personal relationships between IT team members and business users. When the personal relationships are absent, the number of interactions and flow of communication is much lower. A lack of personal relationships makes IT an easy target when business users become frustrated. This is particularly true when the IT department is geographically distant, or otherwise physically separated, from the rest of the business.

A highly effective way of promoting relationships between the parties is to facilitate informal interactions. A typical way that we have seen work includes the implementation of lunch-and-learn sessions led by IT or the business. In these informal lunches, a member of the business or IT team presents a topic of mutual interest, usually related to his or her job function.

Another very effective method for improving communication is starting an IT business "seat rotation" where IT team members, particularly those team members from the applications development and support areas, spend one to two days per week sitting with the business users. Although the team must sometimes solve a few technical issues to make this happen (e.g., acquiring laptops for team members or otherwise enabling them to work outside their normal seating area), the benefits of improved communication and personal relationships at the staff level far outweigh the costs.

The relationships must be improved at the management level as well. The CIO must work to create and improve his or her personal relationships with the senior management team in particular. The IT steering committee is the ideal vehicle for accomplishing this and provides a formal venue for frequent get-togethers with the senior management team. The CIO should seek informal get-togethers with the senior management team as well.

One of our clients had a particularly unproductive IT business relationship. We asked the CIO to set a personal quota of at least two lunches with business managers per week and one dinner per month. Gradually, over a period of a few weeks, some of the seemingly intractable tensions between IT and the business began to relax as the flow of communication and relationships improved.

The CIO should keep a mental count of the frequency of informal interactions between IT and the business, particularly for geographically distant groups of users. Time can pass more rapidly than the manager realizes, and the users can become increasingly disaffected. In one instance, our client had a manufacturing plant located several hours drive from the corporate headquarters, which housed the IT department. During a plant visit, we asked the senior managers when someone from IT last visited. The business team couldn’t remember, but was certain it had been more than a year. They had hired their own IT support staff in the meantime. If necessary, a monthly calendar with joint business-IT events can facilitate the process.

Improve Verbal and Written Communication Skills

IT staffers often suffer from a reputation—deserved or not—for an inability to engage in effective verbal communication. Whether this is true or not, it is certainly an area in which almost anyone can benefit from an improvement in skills. Furthermore, a crucial part of the IT staff role is to negotiate with vendors, persuade business managers, and interview business users, all of which require better-than-average verbal communication abilities.

Richard Shell, a professor of legal studies and management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, made a study of the communications skills of technical executives. In a March 2002 article in CIO Magazine, he provides feedback on how technical managers should approach communication with business users:

I have done work with more technically oriented people and they have this problem ... they think the goal is to sit down and craft out the right answer. They don’t give any thought to the fact that it matters who makes the proposal. Or that there’s going to need to be a compromise because the other person needs to feel like he or she has had a hand in the solution. Even if the compromise is less optimal than the technically oriented person would like, it’s better to have a nonoptimal decision that the other guy really implements than it is to have an optimal decision that everybody resists. This notion of being persuasive and getting a commitment—not just being right—is really hard to learn.

We have observed on numerous occasions that technical professionals, while having a great appreciation for good content are often not as interested in format of presentation. While good content is critical, format and presentation are nearly as important. The best insights need to also be packaged so that the audience can comprehend them. The best CIOs understand this and combine content and format in ways that allow them to easily accomplish their agendas.

The best CIOs spend much of their time communicating both internally and externally. IT departments are notoriously bad at written communications. While generally very structured thinkers, IT team members are often too rushed or harried to construct appropriately clear, well-written e-mails or memorandums.

One of the best examples of this phenomenon is an e-mail received from a manager in the IT department in response to a relatively straightforward request from a business unit manager. This e-mail, while a particularly egregious example, is not necessarily a major departure from the norm for e-mail communications emanating from the IT department.

In the copy of the e-mail that follows, the names have been disguised to protect the guilty, but the formatting, grammar, spelling, punctuation, and content remain unaltered.

Original Message

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