Break IT 'glass houses' by making communications with end users transparent

The evolution of IT staff and end user communications is morphing into positive relationships that facilitate direct dialogue and collaboration. Here's how CIOs can lead this transformation.

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The "glass house" of IT originated in the 1950s, when enterprises began constructing glass windows that allowed visitors to peer into their computer rooms at impressive displays of mainframes, card readers, storage cabinets, tape racks, consoles, and computer operators who moved with purpose and resolution from one workstation to another to attend the day's processing. In the post-World War II era, these demonstrations of enterprise strength overwhelmed awe-filled visitors, board members, management, and employees.

This glass-encased "clenched fist" of IT energized early 1950s companies, which in the post-war economic boom's optimism believed that nothing was impossible or insurmountable.

One seemingly insurmountable hurdle that soon surfaced was IT, which became ensconced within the glass house, where no end business user dared to trespass. Accordingly, early computer requests often came in the form of a written memo for a computer batch report. After submitting the request, the end user just waited until the door to the glass house opened and the report appeared.

Some IT departments still operate in a similar way, but the good news is that new cloud-based technologies, more computing power and knowledge in the hands of end users, and more pressure on IT to heed the needs of the business are energizing CIOs to redefine the glass house as a home for transparency that facilitates direct dialogues and collaboration between end users and IT.

The CIOs who are leading this transformation possess several key leadership qualities:

  • They make it a point to learn the business, to understand the organization's key pain points, and to find technologies that can deliver pain relief and financial results.
  • They develop strong relationships with end users and managers in the business, build collaboration, and break down barriers to communication between the business and IT.
  • They evaluate key contributions (and contributors) within IT on service and business responsiveness as well as on technical acumen.
  • They craft their technology communications with business users, key managers, the C-level, and the board of directors in plain English so that everyone can understand the value propositions of the technology solutions being proposed.

For IT operations that are highly technical in nature, CIOs work with IT staff to ensure premium performance so there never is a need for end users in business units to get involved with the highly technical because everything is always working the way it should.

It hasn't been easy for IT to get to this point. In some cases, companies have experimented with putting business managers in charge of IT. In other cases, they have tried to cycle CIOs through business management to develop business sensitivity. In still other cases, companies have tried to outsource their IT altogether in the hope that managers in the business could manage it at a high level.

None of these methods has achieved sufficient success to be labeled as a best practice, but the failed attempts now lead companies to hire CIOs with an eye toward finding a solidly technical and visionary person who is also cognizant of the business and what it needs to achieve with IT. In the process, the proverbial glass house is morphing from a formidable fortress into a true example of see-through transparency in IT that enables business users to better understand the value that IT brings to the table, and how it will directly improve corporate performance.

By Mary Shacklett

Mary E. Shacklett is president of Transworld Data, a technology research and market development firm. Prior to founding the company, Mary was Senior Vice President of Marketing and Technology at TCCU, Inc., a financial services firm; Vice President o...