Your IT department can't succeed or contribute value to the organization unless you have the respect and trust of the executive team and your customers. Here are some strategies that will help you build a solid reputation for your IT group.
A mid-Atlantic organization recently went through a major leadership change. Previously, the CIO reported directly to the president. With the change, however, that CIO now reports to the vice president of finance, who formerly was a peer. Politically speaking, this change represents a major loss for the IT organization. While we may never know the full reasons, we can agree on the importance of maintaining credibility of the IT department. Here are some tips to consider.
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1: Tie projects to business objectives
The "If you build it, they will come" attitude is great for the movies, but has no place with respect to IT systems development. Make sure that your projects have traceability. Do they address a specific business objective? Within a system, do individual modules have similar traceability? If you are unable to articulate a clear connection between your project and the objectives of the business, take another look at the former.
2: Speak in business/customer terms
Your customers care about their own objectives — for example, revenue increase, expense reduction, and timely filings of regulatory forms. Therefore, when discussing your work, relate it to their own objectives. Instead of talking about disk utilization or lines of code, talk about how the number of Web purchases can increase, or how purchase order processing times can decrease. The more you show how IT makes their job easier, the more they will appreciate you.
3: Use analogies when explaining technical terms
At times you may need to explain a technical concept to a customer. When you do, try to do so from their perspective. One of the best ways is to use an analogy, whereby you explain an unfamiliar technical concept in terms of a known concept. For example, if you're trying to explain a firewall, you might use an analogy of a bank teller. If you want to withdraw money, a teller must verify your identity and your bank balance and then give you the money. You, as the customer, don't just go into the vault and help yourself.
4: Tie your projects to revenue enhancement
Try to relate your system projects to revenue enhancement. Are you redesigning a Web site? Maybe aesthetics and usability do play a role. Keep in mind, though, that a well-designed site might allow quicker purchases, and that satisfied Web site users often return to purchase again. If you focus on how your projects increase revenue, you will have that much more credibility.
5: Act without being asked
I am not saying that you should go out and start developing systems all on your own. I am suggesting, though, that you need not wait for your customers to come to you with requests. Take a look at your company and think about how new projects might help. Then go to your customers with your ideas. In this way, you are taking leadership and demonstrating your forward thinking.
6: Acknowledge mistakes
If it can happen to HSBC, the state of Texas, and the Los Angeles Unified School District, it can happen to you: a major outage or delay that causes work stoppages and loss of productivity. If it happens, do the right thing. Let the affected people know as soon possible and try to develop interim workarounds. Afterward, apologize, take responsibility, and discuss how future problems can be minimized. The worst thing you can do is sweep things under the rug.
7: Set and manage expectations
Your group may have done the best job it could. It may have even exceeded the efforts of any other IT organization. But all of that means nothing if your customer had even higher expectations. Therefore, beware the expectations gap. Customers don't care how well you perform compared to other IT groups; they care how you compare to their expectations. When working on an issue or project, be sure you know what those expectations are — and if necessary, manage them accordingly.
8: Keep customers informed
A major aspect of managing expectations is keeping your customers informed. In other words, don't treat them like mushrooms. They need to know what's going on with regard to systems projects and issues so they can plan their own work around them. If you're working on an issue, let customers know periodically what's going on, even if nothing is going on. That way, they won't feel as though they've been abandoned.
9: Keep a unified front
The last survivor of the Titanic, Millvina Dean, passed away recently. If she'd been old enough to remember that experience, do you think she would have told people, "Thank God the iceberg hit the OTHER side of the ship"? Of course not. Regardless of which side she was on, the entire ship eventually sank.
If your IT organization has the habit of pointing fingers at others within the group, put a stop to it. Such behavior does nothing for customers; it only diminishes their respect for you. Certainly, disagreements will occur. When they do, though, settle them internally rather than airing your dirty laundry.
10: Position your organization as partner, not roadblock
An IT organization can be seen in two ways by its customers. It can be seen as a roadblock — a group that always tries to find reasons why some request can't be handled. Or it can be seen as a partner — a group that finds ways to help the customer, thus helping itself as well as the company. One indicator of such an attitude is the language your staff uses. Do they tell customers what the IT group can't do or what the group CAN do? Do they answer a requested action with all the reasons that action can't be done — e.g., "It won't work because..." or do they answer that, "For it to work, we have to resolve...."? The differences in wording are slight, but they make a huge difference in how your group — and you — are perceived.
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Calvin Sun is an attorney who writes about technology and legal issues for TechRepublic.