With analysts forecasting that overall IT spending will be flat over the rest of this year—and with cuts, layoffs, and outsourcing continuing to plague the industry—communicating the value of IT to decision makers should top the IT manager’s to do list.
"The IT situation is pretty desperate," said Meta Mehling, managing principal of Cupertino, CA-based Meta Mehling & Associates, which specializes in employee and marketing communications. Mehling said that, "IT can be perceived as a prime place to cut or to turn over to outsourcers [during tough times] because it's seen as more flexible or fluid than other functions. We'll just make people do more'—that kind of attitude is going on everywhere at the executive level," she said.
Mehling lays at least part of the blame of this perception squarely at the feet of the IT manager. "You graduate from school with a computer science or engineering degree, but you're ill-prepared for the real world," she said. She cites the often overlooked fact that 80 percent of an IT manager's job is not how adept he or she is with a computer—rather it's how well he or she can jibe with others.
"Can you communicate your ideas to a group?" she asked, "Can you work in a team environment? How do you communicate up and down and sideways in the chain?"
Poor communication skills are directly related to another common deficit among IT managers: marketing skills.
"One of the biggest problems I see with technical people is that they're not marketers—it's just not in their nature," said Scott Sargis, founder of Chicago-based executive recruiting firm Strategic Search Corporation.
"But today, you've got to wear a marketing hat to make sure people at high levels know you've done certain things. Things are so tight out there—I don’t think there's much more you can do."
Best approaches in professional promotion
IT managers seeking recognition for themselves and their teams have to start thinking like the CEO, the VP, or the CIO, advised Mehling.
Specifically, the first step is to figure out how IT is contributing to the bottom line and then to ask yourself the tough questions executives want answers to:
- How is IT reducing costs?
- How is IT increasing revenue?
- What about customer satisfaction and loyalty?
The answers will lay the essential marketing groundwork, explained Mehling. "Then you can get the conversation around IT being a strategic asset, a strategic weapon for the company," she said.
After that, IT managers have to "get visual," said Sargis.
"When IT achieves something important, make sure the top executives at the company know it. Use some quasi-public relations," he recommended.
Sargis gave this example: "During a company event, you could go up to an executive and say, 'I was glad I could be of help to you on that project.' Or follow up via e-mail to your boss and his immediate and write 'I was happy to take on the XYZ project and complete it.' That way you have a paper trail, and you can leverage it later."
Mehling agreed with that approach. She said that every group in tech has their own buzzwords—words that only the inner circle of their group "gets." Accordingly, IT managers need to do the marketing in the right executive lingo.
"It's really important to learn the language of the executive staff. Read the annual report," she suggested, adding that IT managers should request the opportunity to listen in on conference calls with shareholders to understand what's happening within the company, determine what the strategic issues are, and how the numbers are for each quarter. She related a short case study: "I know of one IT system in Europe where, if the system went down, it would cost the company $300,000 dollars per minute. That's the kind of stat you should know about your business."
Communicate with the enterprise
A big part of the effort, for IT managers especially, is learning how to "spin a crisis," said Mehling. Most users in an organization know the frustration of a system failure or malfunction, and suffer from the ensuing downtime. And many also believe that IT, hidden behind a veil of technical jargon, is either unwilling or doesn't care, that users simply want to know what happened. What happens, in essence, is that IT gains a bad reputation for not being up-front and communicative.
And that's exactly the wrong perception any organization should have of IT, said Mehling. In fact, during a crisis, Mehling said, "The first thing an IT manager should do is dash off an e-mail saying the system is down, and every hour on the hour give an update…let people know what's going on."
After the problem has been rectified, it's a good communications effort to send out another e-mail explaining that "it could have been a lot worse…the sky was falling and IT jumped up and caught the ball!" said Mehling.
Mehling does warn, however, that it's important to target e-mails to the requisite audience by being aware of the hierarchy of the organization.
"It might not be appropriate for an IT manager to send an e-mail of explanation across the entire organization. Rather, it's better to send it out to the particular people it's pertinent to."
Get your name out to the press
Another good approach in marketing is reaching out for attention outside of the organization. Both Mehling and Sargis say that IT managers should be on the lookout for ways to get their IT efforts written up in the press, specifically in the well-known tech trades or financial newspapers.
"Get into the media, get into the different IT publications, so that people know about you, and know what you've accomplished," said Sargis. Mehling believes the best way to accomplish this is to find an interesting angle in order to get an editor interested in interviewing you.
"Get up-to-speed on the hot IT issues and challenges of the day," she said, "and also offer the magazine a case study about how your IT team handled or solved a crisis." This, in turn, could also lead to professional promotion as a public speaker at industry conferences, forums, and events.
IT managers should reach out to the company's PR staff and work with them to promote the IT unit's successes.
"They [PR] control who talks to the press," said Mehling, "and they will welcome you. Most tech PR departments are in real need of credible spokespeople—those who can speak to the press in both technical terms and understandable language."
Promote your team's success, not just yours
All of this promotion and marketing creates a major caveat, warned Sargis.
"You cannot do all this so overtly that you step on [your staff's] toes…it should be done in a subtle way. An IT manager shouldn't be looking to grab the spotlight alone."
Mehling agreed, adding, "IT managers should consider this only for promoting a team's work, not just themselves. The big thing in these economic times is that you cannot give [and get] enough acknowledgement and appreciation and praise for your IT team."
If done in the right manner, IT managers needn't worry about a potential backlash within the company for getting serious with the fine art of self-promotion, said Mehling. Barbs, like "shameless" or "brown-nosing," may indeed arise after the fact from jealous staffers, but, in the end, Mehling is adamant that good communication skills and self-promotion are integral today.
"Some people will say it's political—I call it smart," said Mehling.