IT has been embroiled in many interdepartmental battles over the years, with finance and HR once considered mortal enemies, but no single group has the capacity to send shivers through an IT department quite as fast as marketing.

Like most IT managers, I’ve been peripherally involved in many marketing initiatives over the years. Usually, though, my encounters have not been much more than a last-minute request for someone in marketing to take a look at something before I sent it on. In other less-frequent encounters, I’ve often discovered that marketing proposals are completely impractical in the IT world, or the costs haven’t been thoroughly considered. For example, I’ve run up against rebranding issues, where stylish but unworkable fonts are chosen for “market differentiation.” Sure, the glossy promos look terrific, but the text can’t be read on-screen in its natural size, and hundreds of boilerplate documents will have to be reformatted.

It seems, though, that things are changing, and particularly as businesses move toward e-commerce, the demarcation line between the two groups is becoming somewhat blurred. And, in all fairness, marketing folks are natural communicators, something their counterparts in IT have never been renowned for.

This convergence of skills can be seen in the increasing number of ads appearing for technical staff to work in marketing or business development groups, particularly those responsible for online services. This new shift has made me wonder whether it’s time for technically qualified marketing and communications professionals to have a role in IT departments.

The marketing/IT niche
At first glance, you might consider the skill sets too diverse or the personalities worlds apart. But when you consider the gaps a marketing/communications person could fill in IT, it actually starts to make good sense. Particularly in large organizations, with large IT departments to match, a technically competent professional with sound marketing skills could provide the focal communications point during major projects, develop and implement a communications strategy, and remove a significant level of burden from the project managers.

And it’s not just in major projects that this person could make a valuable contribution. Acting as a liaison with users, marketing the group’s services, educating line managers and users about the capabilities (and limitations) of IT, and bridging the gap between IT and marketing in the content and direction of online services would all form part of this niche role. Pieces of the role already exist now, with various aspects spread across a range of job functions including IT management, project management, change management, online services, and training.

Playing this scenario out in real life
When questioned about the idea of a marketing role in IT, Donna Meagher, the project manager responsible for desktop deployments at a major Australian university, said that after the decision to make any strategic change had been made, “the mechanisms for getting information out across campus, including presentations, forums, a Web site, e-mails, etc. have to be developed, and the majority of my time is spent marketing and selling solutions and ensuring proper communication channels are in place for feedback and problem resolution.” Desktop deployments affect users across the board, and as Meagher’s university has some 2,000 staff and 13,000 students, it renders change and communication a daunting task in anyone’s language. This is a perfect example of how a role for a marketing pro in the IT department would be invaluable.

In this same vein, e-commerce has brought with it an explosion of courses structured around IT and marketing—a combination of skills that now seem essential in an online world. Andrew Caro, who lectures on “Managing Client Relations” at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia, has no doubt that there is now more convergence between the theory and practice of IT and marketing than there was five or six years ago. Caro suggested that this trend would continue in the current climate, where more IT people are looking for fewer jobs, and that with some of the shine gone from the IT world following the tech wreck, the smart IT operators would realize that the success or failure of their jobs depended on those old-fashioned skills like good management and marketing. In fact, “Managing Client Relations” is basically Marketing 101 for techs. When quizzed by one of his students as to the slightly disingenuous title, Caro responded tongue-in-cheek, “Well, if we said it was marketing, none of you would come, would you?”

Let marketing handle the communication end of IT
At the end of one major rollout I was involved with (a Lotus Notes implementation that involved a change in e-mail platform for 400 users over five locations, along with a complete change in business processes for one department), I recall thinking that the one thing we could have done better all along was communicate—not just in providing regular updates to users, but from the outset in the preparation of a formal communications strategy. We had a basic plan that covered all the essentials, however, as the project neared completion. We were pushing to meet immoveable deadlines and working ridiculous hours to resolve the technical problems that invariably raised their ugly, unforeseen heads; our attention was sharply focused on problem resolution and deadlines. The communication plan, basic as it was, went right out the window. On reflection, had the task of planning and managing a comprehensive communications strategy been devoted to one person, the outcome would have been quite different.

While such a “cross-pollination” role is not the answer for every organization, and it’s obviously a role more likely to appear in a larger IT department with the budget to support it, smaller IT shops should still look out for people in support roles who could prove to be naturals in this area and would benefit from a little diversity. And there are actually quite a lot of good communicators in IT; they’re just hiding out in project management and training.

With aspects of IT and marketing on a convergent path, due largely to e-commerce, perhaps it’s time to consider how marketing and communications skills could be put to good use in an IT department.