By Mike Sisco

As a consultant trying to assess the strength of a client’s IT capabilities, your conversations with the departments in your client’s organization can yield some of the most valuable information. Often, you’ll uncover the nature of the relationship between your client’s IT staff and other departments, whether the IT department is meeting everyone’s needs, and whether it reflects the client’s overall goals.

In this article, we’ll show you the best way to approach users and departments and what kinds of information you should glean from them.

Second in a series

In his first article on conducting an IT assessment of your client, consultant Mike Sisco discussed ways to approach senior management and what to ask them during an IT assessment. In his next article, Sisco will cover what IT assessment information you should get from your client’s external clients.

Two types of clients
After you spend time learning senior management’s perspective of the company’s needs for technology products and services, you need to hear from those that actually use the technology every day to do their job. There are two types of users of technology:

  1. Internal clients: Company departments, such as billing, payroll, human resources, etc.
  2. External clients: Outside companies or organizations that buy technology products and services from the company you are evaluating

Both types of clients have a direct impact on the IT organization’s credibility. In many ways, an internal company department should be easier for IT to work with, since both groups are part of the same company. Often, however, they can be some of IT’s toughest clients, with the expectations of internal department managers often being much higher than external clients’.

An external client, on the other hand, has to understand the true value and cost of technology more so than an operation that has an IT organization readily available from another part of the company. Internal clients don’t usually see a cost tied to their IT support.

During an IT assessment I performed several years ago, I encountered an IT organization that was severely criticized by its own company operations but was receiving glowing remarks from its external clients using the same products and services.

This was a self-perpetuating situation. Who do you think got the most attention when they needed help? The external client. It’s hard for anyone to smile when they are constantly getting beaten up, which is what was happening to the IT department in this situation.

But after digging deeper, it was also apparent that IT was spending more than 30 percent of its resources on the external clients that made up less than 6 percent of the company’s revenues. Another truth here is that companies have to focus their IT staff on real business priorities. Otherwise, they will probably sport a few bruises for focusing resources in the wrong areas.

While interviews with senior management can tell you what the company is about, its plans for growth, and how technology plays into the scheme of things, your interviews with the company departments will tell you more and will validate issues that you have heard so far.

What to look for and ask in your interviews
As you go into your department interviews, try to determine the following:

  • Whether the department is focused on the same objectives as senior management
  • If the department understands technology’s role to help them
  • The department’s capabilities in using technology
  • The relationship between the department and IT
  • Key technology needs of the department
  • Change-management processes
  • Perceptions of IT that are consistent with senior management’s perspective

Before you start, create an attack plan: Line up the departments and schedule interviews with the managers. Develop a set of questions to help you validate what you heard from the senior managers. Above all, keep an open mind and “read between the lines.” When you hear something that suggests there might be an issue, explore it until you determine if it is real or not.

Figure A lists some questions that you might use in your interviews.

Figure A

Perception vs. reality…
In some companies, other company departments are the only clients of the IT department. If this is the case with the company for which you’re doing the IT assessment, question those departments just as you would with an external client interview. The old saying, “The customer is always right,” holds true here. If the department believes IT support is the best thing since sliced bread, it probably is pretty good. If they believe it’s poor, there is probably something worth investigating.

But take a more analytical view. Perceptions are often driven by emotion or personality. An interview with a given client manager may provide stellar feedback, but several other interviews yield less than satisfactory impressions.

Look for trends and consistency. The senior manager interviews gave you an initial impression. You must validate both the good and the bad.

In many situations, you will find negative impressions to be a result of IT not managing the department’s expectations well or failing to communicate proactively to keep them informed.

…and how assessment can tell you which is correct
During the mid-80s, I managed an IT support group that had a “terrible client” that was legendary within the company for having problems all the time and blaming the support organization. As luck would have it, a company reorganization placed this client under my management.

After the first month-end process on my watch, there were problems. My new staff told me that “this always occurred” and that the client always had a lot of problems. This was the same thing I had heard from my corporate office prior to the reorganization.

However, it was interesting that my staff could not provide any specifics. I decided to observe the situation for a while; maybe it was just a fluke incident.

No such luck.

At the next month-end, the client had problems again and the system crashed, which we had to repair. This had happened two months in a row. I got the same answers from my young staff. “It’s a client problem.”

I don’t know about you, but to me, two crashes in two months is more than a fluke. I called the company CFO and we scheduled a small team to spend three days assessing the situation. Rather than complain and criticize us, he was actually grateful.

We determined that while client issues were causing many of the problems, there were also issues created by my team. Without the assessment, everyone would have continued to point fingers at one another. The assessment identified specific issues, and we developed recommendations to fix them.

The solution actually cost the client $6,000 more per month in professional services with our company. It was a huge win-win situation, because the days of month-end system crashes miraculously came to an end, and this “terrible client” became a great reference client for us.

The moral of the story is that you must confirm what you hear in your interviews. Look for consistency and learn how to draw information out of people. I always believe there is fire underneath smoke until I can confirm whether it is actually smoke or just a little fog.

Post-interview considerations
When you leave the department interviews, you should have a picture forming in your mind as to how well the IT organization performs. You should also be gaining insight as to how well-developed the processes are that have been implemented to help clients use their technology support services.

Remember, this is still a perception. Later interviews with external clients, and finally, the IT group, will validate these perceptions or put them in question.

After your interviews, make sure you’ve answered these questions for your assessment:

  • What do the departments like about IT?
  • What do they dislike?
  • How well is IT responding to their day-to-day needs?
  • How well does IT anticipate their needs?
  • Do the departments and IT have a healthy dialogue?
  • Are the departments in sync with what you heard from the senior managers?
  • How well does the company’s technology support the department needs?
  • What are the departments’ key issues that IT can have an impact on?
  • Can the department managers describe a change-management process?
  • Is the department truly involved, or does it just want IT to “fix” the problem?
  • Does the department need training to better use their technology?

As we said earlier, if the client believes something, it is real. The conclusions you gather from the interviews of internal and external clients will help quantify your focus for the IT organization interviews later on.

Have you helped your clients put together SLAs?

As a consultant, have you worked with an organization to help draft service level agreements between the company’s IT staff and its internal and external clients? How did you approach the task? Tell us about it in a discussion or send us an e-mail.