This couldn’t be happening at a worse time.
According to a recent study by the CIO Executive Council, poor communication is resulting in “a state of crisis between IT and non-IT employees, which could prove disastrous” in the current environment of unprecedented digital disruption.
Writing in CIO magazine, Brendan McGowan details the research findings. IT leaders recognize that building trust and credibility across their organizations is critical, but most acknowledge significant shortcomings in their groups’ communication abilities.
Yet, another study notes the companies that will thrive in the midst of disruption will be those which are “customer-focused, agile and responsive to market conditions (and) efficient and innovative technology champions.”
And as McGowan adds, “Effective communication will continue to be the common thread, the business-enabling quality that helps guarantee all the others.”
Implementing changes and correcting current deficiencies will be a significant effort for most organizations, and the gaps won’t be bridged overnight. But here are six practical ways enterprises can begin to improve communications between IT teams and their colleagues in other functional areas.
Translate Technology Trends into Business Benefits
Most CIOs want to play a more strategic role within their organizations, but recognize the challenges in achieving that objective.
As reported by McGowan, “The aspirations of IT leaders are high. Most want to overcome the gaps. Foremost on their minds is building trust and credibility (80% – see chart below)…67% of those surveyed place the same critical value on making sure that IT understands business needs. Roughly the same percentage (66%) view IT-business partnering and collaboration as a topline goal.”
However, these leaders acknowledged their existing shortcomings in many of these areas. For example, while four out of five said “building trust and credibility” within the business was a top priority, just 12% feel they are “very effective” at this.
More alarmingly, while 81% say that introducing and educating “the business on technologies and capabilities” is either “important” or “highly important,” just 6% of IT leaders believe their groups are “very effective” in this area.
Yet this is a crucial role for IT to play, and one where collaboration is natural. IT better understands the capabilities of cloud computing, wearables, and the Internet of Things, for example, while marketing and sales (should) have a handle on market needs. Together, they can collaborate on the most promising applications of such technology within the business.
Blockbuster Video is the poster child for failure in this area; though there’s a bit more to the story, the crux of it was that business leaders failed to recognize an emerging technology as a mortal threat to their business.
There was communication, but not collaboration. Large, complex, enterprise-level problems (as which an existential threat to the business certainly qualifies) require thorough, documented collaboration among all relevant individuals.
Reflecting on the importance of this role, Kim Barrier, VP and CIO at Bio-Rad Laboratories is quoted by McGowan saying it’s “‘important to travel a lot, to get out to meet with business leaders in their location; to understand what we do, what we manufacture, what are the challenges, to see how colleagues are living it.’ An isolated IT leader is an irrelevant IT leader. It is essential that IT leaders gain a true sense of perspective and mission by connecting not only with their colleagues, but with the end customers they ultimately serve.”
Take an Agile, Evolutionary Approach
In an environment of rapidly changing technology and business needs, “big bang” rip-and-replace implementations of entirely new core systems aren’t always the best approach. They are expensive, disruptive, and run the risk of not meeting users’ expectations once projects are completed—because those expectations have changed in the interim.
As McGowan states of IT communication (which is equally applicable to applications), “There is no ideal end state…There is no perfection in the art. Like successful financial investing, there are only iterative returns with the potential for appreciation over time.”
Building out technology solutions using an agile approach—frequent releases of incremental enhancements and new functions—fosters closer collaboration with business users and helps ensure that technology is effectively meeting users’ needs and expectations.
Implement Enterprise Request Management for Employee Provisioning
In his introduction to the article, McGowan emphasizes that “Four out of five IT leaders claim that building trust and credibility is highly important. However, only four out of one hundred believe that they are highly effective in communicating with their non-IT colleagues.”
Again, both the causes and cures are complex, but one key area for collaboration is enterprise request management (ERM). In the ERM approach, employees have a single, intuitive portal for requesting any service, product or resource needed to do their jobs. The portal is integrated with back-end workflow automation software to accelerate delivery, ensure first-time fulfillment, and enable employees to check on the status of open requests at any time.
ERM portals are often, though by no means always, built out by extending an IT service catalog across other functional areas. Collaboration is natural; once they experience the ease of requesting services from IT (or another shared services group), employees want to see other services added–and leaders of other functional groups want to add their services.
Managers or business process owners in other groups—HR, facilities, finance, training, etc.–can build their own “service items” using graphic tools, with some (though minimal) help from IT.
Members of the IT team get to be heroes to the business; but more importantly, they get to make other leaders and process owners heroes as well. This fosters productive and positive communication and collaboration.
Supplement IT Teams with New Skillsets
While traditional IT skills (network admins, DBAs, application experts, developers, etc.) remain in demand, changes in business technology and user expectations are driving the need for new skills as well, in areas like social/human skills and design talent.
Workers accustomed to easy-to-use consumer technologies like ecommerce and social networking sites now expect a similar experience with workplace technology. Functionality and performance are no longer sufficient; the user experience with business applications must meet a high bar as well.
Individuals with these skills will supplement the technical talent already in place, and, properly utilized, can help existing IT staff enhance their communication skills with business users rather than shielding them from the need to collaborate.
“Don’t Align — Converge”
McGowan believes that too much is made of “business alignment.” As an internal, integral part of the business—and increasingly a driver of new business models—IT must do more:
“Internal IT staff must … converge with the business itself. As Kerrie Hoffman, VP of IT Building Efficiency at Johnson Controls, puts it, IT is the business and needs to start acting like it.”
This is an increasingly common thought, even leading some to suggest it’s time to drop “IT” as a term and replace it with “business technology.”
Drive Conversations Using Metrics
Like every other functional group within an organization, IT has its own unique set of metrics. In terms of communicating with the wider business though, these metrics (or at least the most relevant ones) need to be translated into business terms: increased revenue or decreased cost (and hence greater profitability).
For example, in an ERM implementation, the workflow automation software automatically captures information pertaining to task and process completion time: how long it takes to submit a request, get approval, schedule delivery, complete fulfillment, etc.. These figures can be compared to pre-ERM times, as well as to previous figures in efforts at continual process improvement.
Such metrics have operational meaning within IT (or other functional groups), but don’t have business value until translated into the proper terms.
For example, if the request submission time for ordering a new laptop (something that may happen 10,000 times each year in a large organization) is reduced from 10 minutes to two minutes, and the average labor-hour cost in the enterprise is $34, the total annual savings are $45,000 in (formerly) lost productivity—for just one type of request. The savings in end-to-end fulfillment time can be orders of magnitude larger.
Existing impediments to effective communication between IT and other parts of the business are complex and varied, and resolving the challenges faced by CIOs and other IT leads to meet their high aspirations isn’t simple. But there are practical, manageable steps those leaders can take today to begin moving toward more effective communication and collaboration across the enterprise.