CXO

Five tips for working with the internal IT department

To make sure your client's IT department won't work with you, begin your engagement by not listening to the staff, failing to build consensus, and isolating yourself. To make things work, take this advice from those who've been there.


No department, especially IT, enjoys an inspection of its systems and processes by an outside party. Suspicion, negativity, or even open hostility can greet a consultant charged with making changes and recommendations. Even in the best of circumstances, you can find resistance. A sluggish economy, corporate downsizing, and slashed IT budgets have left some IT departments in a state of disarray, confusion, and fear—something you must also contend with during your consulting engagements.

The success of the project can rest on the relationship you as a consultant have with IT—these tips can help you navigate a challenging environment.

Respect the home team
Don't go in on a new job like gangbusters, advised Chris Levine, a mainframe-programming consultant with 15 years of experience. Realize that employees put a lot of time and effort into keeping their systems running and that your suggested changes can easily be misconstrued as, "I know better than you."

"Go in there with an attitude that you're in someone else's house. Respect that," said Levine, who is based in Tampa Bay, FL. "Don't go in with 'You're doing this wrong. You're doing that wrong.’"

Levine has seen a number of consultants that enter a department with an ego, especially consultants hired right out of college by larger consulting firms. "They are kids, they've never worked in a professional environment before, and they're cocky. Some of them come in there and they don't know how to conduct themselves."

Instead, enter the engagement with the intention of learning from others, said communications expert Jamie Walters, founder and CVSO of Ivy Sea, Inc., a business consulting firm in San Francisco that specializes in change management and conflict resolution issues.

Walters said many of her clients commonly deal with these situations, and that the ones who prevail are those who work to create cohesion among all project team members.

"Demonstrate respect for in-house expertise,” Walters said. “Ask questions, check things out, bounce things off of colleagues. Collaborate to bring about successes."

Don't take it personally
A department's previous experience with consultants can also affect your treatment. For example, in Levine's experience, many consulting companies had been hiring recent college graduates to work on client sites, instead of consultants who have experience as former IT employees.

Such "unseasoned" consultants, who have not honed their communication skills, can ruffle employee feathers and set a poor precedent for other incoming consultants. Besides experience with previous consultants, the way the company treats its employees can also affect how they treat you.

Levine said that one client had just finished a massive round of layoffs, and she was among a group of consultants hired to finish some of the company's IT projects. The IT staff were initially hostile and understandably suspicious of the new hires.

"I had one guy tell me that we consultants were taking away their jobs," she said.

Even the project manager who hired the consultants worried that after the company had her fire the employees and hire outside help, her own job was on the line.

"You can't take anything personally as a consultant,” Levine said. “You're getting paid the big bucks, and basically you've got to take the crap that goes with it."

Address employee fears
Levine said her situation was resolved when the employees realized the consultants were there to help, and that they weren't out to take the employees’ jobs. The contract was extended to three years, and the consultant's efforts were "taking the pressure off them," she said.

Howard Hinman, a COBOL consultant based in Indiana, faced a similar situation while working to implement software designed to increase programmers’ productivity. The streamlining software had many in IT departments fearful that the $5,000 "solution" would replace employees.

By addressing the paranoia and being "open and honest," with IT, Hinman explained to the staff that other companies had implemented the software and hadn’t reduced staff at all.

"In fact, most IT shops have large backlogs, and improved productivity does not always mean layoffs," Hinman told the groups.

Realizing employees are anxious about their jobs and reduced budgets, and speaking openly and honestly about your contract and your intentions can help set the record straight, Walters said.

"Be clear that you're there to augment—not replace—in-house staff, because you know they've got more to do with fewer resources than ever," Walters said. "The less skillful approach is to come in like the 'smart one' or lone cowboy who's going to save everyone from their stupidity."

Participate in company culture
To gel with the department and to help nurture a relationship outside of work, telecommunications consultant Michele Hendrickson suggested that consultants attend extracurricular events when they are invited, such as pitch-ins or birthday celebrations.

"If I get an invitation, I accept it, usually,” Hendrickson said. “In the beginning, you don't want to appear standoffish, or like you're positioning yourself away from everyone."

Levine suggested a similar approach: Wait for an invitation and attend a few well-chosen events to break down barriers between you and the department. "Don't be aloof. They just want to know you don't think you're better than them," she said.

Protect yourself
Aside from open frustration or hostility, employees can "play games" with consultants to rattle them, notes Hendrickson, sometimes withholding or giving out incorrect information. Unfortunately for consultants, they may not realize it until it's too late.

Hendrickson recalled a situation in which she overheard two employees discussing their work with a new consultant. "'I gave them just enough to send them down the wrong path,'" Hendrickson said she heard one employee say to the other.

Since that exchange, Hendrickson said she now understands how employees can react to a consultant's battery of questions and fact-finding, and that she is cautious about all the information she uncovers.

"You need to check your facts constantly along the way. And get concurrence from the people who are giving you information, preferably in written form," Hendrickson said.

At the same time, if a situation is heating up, play it cool, Levine said. Resist the temptation to feed into the negativity or game playing, and realize your career lies far beyond a single client.

"It's a small world when it comes to consulting, especially if you're in a niche area," he said. "You develop a reputation, and you want to make sure you keep that reputation clean, because that's your stock and trade."

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