Book Excerpt: Business communications

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From: <Phil Smith—SVP>

Sent: Thursday, June 23, 2006 10:557 A.M.
To: <John Doe—IT manager>

Subject: Need help; please explain priorities


The Accounting conversion team is telling me that you did not get the desktops in Colorado converted on Friday per your previous commitment and that some of the Utah desktops are still not converted.

What happened?


Yes the part that the machines did not get converted on Friday is correct. The original commitment I made was that when the machines from the 4 people in accounting where done being used on Friday or early Monday they would then bring there machines into IT and we would convert them. I spoke with Jane and they we not using it that day. On Tuesday at 12:05 I began the conversation of all 4 machine and they were all up on the new version by 12:35 P.M. (TUESDAY). I understand that there are problems with the software in Utah that Jill is aware of and Chicago was receiving the same error they were receiving in Utah. I just spoke to Jill about 10 minutes ago and she said she has a call into Jane for a different problem with a candidate that says he is assigned on a project and she removed him but it still says he is on a project (or something to that affect) as I am unfamiliar with how they use the accounting system and so forth. Since we only have 4 staff in Colorado what machines am I missing? Jane’s desktop is up and running and she turned in her laptop to be rebuilt? Is that what the complaint is? As of what day is this information that you were given? I realize today is Thursday but I am unaware of any more machines that need to be converted. If there are more that need the software on them please have someone contact the IT helpdesk and let us know who’s machines still need to be converted updated or installed on. We will gladly install the software as needed. I showed a few other people in IT how it installed and we are ready to install it whenever and wherever it needs to be put. Also to let you know the T1 sprint cloud in New York was upgraded on Friday from a 256k to 768k and the feedback I am getting back from Stan is the speed increase since that is great.

A relatively straightforward question was asked, and the response is literally impossible to decipher. Not only is the content impossible to understand, but also, the author has avoided even the slightest attempt at formatting or punctuation that might have at least improved the readability of the response. Sadly, this type of written communication often emanates from an IT department. Because the original request came from a member of the senior management team, we can also reasonably assume that this represents the highest standard that the respondent can achieve.

Because IT team members must often send global e-mails or e-mails to large numbers of corporate users simultaneously, they should be trained in how to construct the ideal communication. E-mail communications should provide a bottom-line message as the very first item in the communication. This ensures that those who tend to ignore communications with IT will get the most important part of the message and avoids the common complaint that IT is not clear in its communication. The e-mail should also include some additional information to avoid the common complaint that IT is too abrupt in its communications. An example of a better e-mail follows:

To: All corporate users
Subject: E-mail access will be down tomorrow, June 25, for 2 hours from 9 to 11 P.M.

Corporate users—

The e-mail system will be upgraded tomorrow, June 25, from 9 P.M. until 11 P.M. Users will be unable to access or send e-mail during that time.

Questions may be directed to the IT team.

Why are we doing this? The e-mail system is being upgraded to a new operating system and server. This should noticeably improve performance for all users and provide more reliable access. The upgrade tasks will include the installation of a new server, the archiving of old e-mail data, and the migration of e-mail accounts to the new machines. We will be taking a full backup of the system in advance to guard against any loss of e-mail. No special preparation on the part of the user is required. We will send a global voice mail to all corporate users as soon as the procedure is complete.

Finally, the IT team should not just improve the content of its communication, but also the frequency and reason. IT is often accused of not informing users of status frequently enough during emergencies or of not providing ample warning of system maintenance or planned outages. An improved awareness within IT of how its actions may affect business users and a commitment to communicate those actions clearly, in advance where possible, will vastly improve the IT-business relationship.

The IT team should also work to determine the best medium—verbal or written—for a given communication. The choice of channel can dramatically affect how well the communication is received. "Written communications are lousy at changing people’s minds," claims Steven Kerr, a vice president at General Electric. "Writing is such a seductive medium . . . it’s cheap, you can get the message to everyone at the same time, and you go home thinking you’ve done your job. But you have no way of knowing whether your audience gets it until it’s too late." [Christopher Koch, "The Way You Say It," CIO magazine (November 15, 1996).]

The IT team should pre-communicate sensitive issues or items requiring persuasion verbally and in person. Kerr continues, "[In person] you can immediately gauge whether your message is confusing people or causing more controversy than you expected because you can see their faces as they are receiving your message." Written communications documenting the previous meetings can then follow.

Hold the Business Units Accountable

As counterintuitive as it might seem, holding the business unit personnel accountable for their responsibilities, both on projects and in relationship building with IT personnel, will actually improve and strengthen the IT-business relationship and respect for IT. Clear responsibilities for business unit personnel should be detailed in project charters and plans. Business unit employees must be held accountable for the activities and deliverables they are responsible for. In many cases, IT cannot get the help from a business unit it needs to complete a project. Yet, when the project deadline slips, the failure is typically blamed on the IT project team.

Since business unit personnel don’t report to the CIO, grievance and issues with business personnel typically follow the appropriate chain of command. Ultimately, the CIO can discuss problems with the head of the business unit in extreme cases. Regardless of the discussion, it is important for IT to let the business unit know when they are failing to provide the necessary resources. These discussions should be documented and discussed in front of the IT steering committee. Projects with insufficient business unit resources should either be postponed or re-prioritized in the scheme of activities the business unit is involved in, so business unit personnel can re-prioritize their time to the necessary level and correct projects. In the case of performance problems with a business unit resource, that resource should be replaced as soon as possible to eliminate project risk.

Ultimately, most people like to be held accountable for their commitments. It reinforces the fact that their work is important and valued. In the long run, holding business unit resources accountable will enable IT to successfully complete more projects in less time. Ultimately, the business unit will be pleased with the quality, rigor, and timeliness of projects executed under this management philosophy. IT customer satisfaction levels and respect will increase. From time to time, the approach causes discomfort and conflict, but in the long run, it ensures the success of the relationship.

Build Communication and Relationship Attributes into Personnel Reviews

What gets measured gets managed as the popular saying goes. This is true of relationship building and communication. The personnel review forms for each level of the IT organization should include a section for assessing both relationship building with the business as well as the communication (written and verbal) skills of the individual. First, this has the benefit of assessing individual team members on a very important success criteria. Second, it reaffirms the importance in the mind of the individual employee that those are two skills necessary for excellent performance in their job. Further, if those two attributes are missing from review forms, it has the double negative effect of reinforcing their unimportance.

Recruit Staff from the Business Side

One way to cross fertilize IT and business units is to hire business unit staff for appropriate IT roles. This is a double win for the IT department. First, they get a known quantity based on prior working relationships. Second, they get a person who has already built strong relationships in the business unit and can use those to further the mission of the IT department. Before looking for outside candidates, attempt to "recruit" star performers from the business units when there is skill fit. The most likely position to be filled by a business unit employee is the business analyst role, which can typically be filled by business unit analysts and super users. Additionally, administrative assistants, testers, functional experts (e.g., accounting), and managers are good positions to fill via business unit employees. Obviously, IT shouldn’t "steal" employees from business units, so clear and proper communication and reciprocal agreements with business unit leaders are required.

Promote IT

Promoting the accomplishments, objectives, and priorities of the IT department is critical to improving communication among the various stakeholders in the company. Do not assume that everyone in the company knows the IT department’s priorities or its promised service levels and performance against those. Most corporate employees outside IT probably don’t even know what service levels mean or the rationale for setting them.

Communicate to the business via multiple methods including marketing material, e-mail, newsletters, and the Intranet. These should be targeted to the distinct "customers" of the IT department. First, define the customers, then determine effective mediums for communicating to them and, finally, execute and deliver appropriate content using the determined mediums. Many IT departments we work with publish newsletters to the entire company. The most common mistake is to make the newsletters "technology" focused and not customer or business focused. Explain how IT is helping the company accomplish its goals (e.g., building revenue or reducing costs). Report on the performance of IT and its track record of delivering business-critical projects and SLAs. Make sure to periodically explain the rationale for the SLA metrics.

Communicating mandates and priorities determined by the IT steering committee is also important. Employees may not understand why the IT department is implementing a financial accounting software package instead of a warehouse management system, for example. Disgruntled workers on the warehouse floor might be saying, "Why do they keep tinkering with the accounting software when we can’t even ship out multiple orders in one shipment. It makes no sense." Reporting in a newsletter that the corporate strategy entails tightening up financial accounting processes and thus IT is implementing new account software can bridge the unknown and raise the perception of IT accomplishments. Finally, relentlessly self-promote IT accomplishments like third-party industry awards received by the department. These will go a long way in positively shaping outside perception.

Build Online Communication Mechanisms

A corporate Intranet is a great medium to both deliver news and provide service to internal customers. IT can be the lead department if the company does not already have an Intranet. Building an IT page with features such as news, announcements, personnel directory, project statuses, and team work spaces can serve as both a communication and a productivity enhancement. One goal of the CIO is to make doing business with the IT department as easy and simple as possible. Developing a one-stop location to request office moves, phone extension changes, service requests, new employee notifications, project request forms, methodologies, online training, and so on will greatly help the effort, drive customer satisfaction, and improve IT’s relationship with the business.

Make the Changes Permanent

It can be difficult to change the communication skills of the IT department and even harder to begin to build personal relationships where none previously existed. The best way to ensure that the IT team members adopt an open, communicative approach with the business is for the CIO to lead by example. An CIO whose verbal and written communications are clear and concise and who maintains close professional and personal relationships with corporate managers outside the IT department serves as a compelling example to his or her team.

The CIO should also implement formal and informal non-technical training and development programs that help the staff learn and practice the requisite communications skills.

Informal methods, such as books and self-study courses in communication, are an easily executed approach. More formal training can be provided by a wide variety of vendors, such as non-credit courses at local colleges. Further, the CIO should encourage the team’s participation in outside, nontechnical speaking groups, such as Toastmasters.

Achieving major cultural change in the IT department can be challenging. To encourage compliance, as well as to send a clear signal to the organization that these are important issues, the CIO should make improving verbal and written communications an integral part of the staff appraisal process. Excellent communications skills should be a prerequisite for promotion within the department.

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.


Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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