This article was originally published on our sister site, TechRepublic.

Let’s face it: Though there’s been some progress toward changing business users’ perception of IT, IT still has a lousy image. There’s an impression that IT is off in its own little world, doing its work in veiled secrecy. Customers complain that they’re getting little attention, when folks in IT know all too well that’s untrue.

In a day when any IT organization is in competition with outsourced providers, promoting IT’s mission and services should be priority one for CIOs. I asked four CIOs what methods they used to communicate the value of IT to the rest of the company. Here’s what they said.

Stick to a regular schedule
Bill Hicks, CIO for Precision Response Corporation (PRC), is quick to point out that it is the IT department’s responsibility to keep all the other departments informed, and he takes the responsibility very seriously. His approach to IT interdepartmental communications is three-tiered:

  • Keep the CEO (Tom Cardella) informed.
  • Maintain lateral communications (C-level and department heads).
  • Make sure the entire IT team knows what’s going on.

Hicks said he schedules a meeting with the CEO anytime an issue or anything new comes up that involves the IT department. For example, Hicks recently met with Cardella to explain the company’s ongoing migration to a Linux platform. “I don’t think e-mail or memos are good for getting that kind of information across,” Hicks said.

Hicks said his meetings with Cardella are very important because, otherwise, “we may not interact on a regular basis….It is mission-critical that he is kept informed.”

At the second tier of Hicks’ approach is communication with other C-level personnel and department heads throughout the company. For them, Hicks develops monthly update reports. These are usually about four informative pages that include topics such as goals that were set and the outcome of those goals, and updates on key projects.

The first two tiers of communication are important, but Hicks said the greatest effort goes into making sure the entire 220-person IT department knows what’s going on. Each month, a two-hour meeting is scheduled between leadership and management-level IT personnel. Topics for these meetings include new technology. In addition to keeping the IT management level informed and talking about their own strategies and goals, this also gives this level of management a chance to develop and improve communication skills, Hicks said. Most importantly, it gives teams within IT a chance to discuss ongoing projects that may affect other groups. “This is a challenge I noticed early on,” Hicks recalled.

“Maybe I’m working on a project in the UNIX group that might impact the quality assurance group, but the quality assurance group won’t know about it until it hits them in the face.” Good communications within the department will prevent that, Hicks said. Hicks also holds roundtable discussions that are open to anyone in IT.

Keeping the entire company informed when the network, or something else for which IT is responsible, does not perform as expected is another task Hicks takes seriously. Hicks said he quickly informs others in the company what went wrong, what was done to fix it, and what effect it had on the company. His team is careful to issue these reports in a way that less computer-literate members in other departments will understand. “We want to make sure people realize IT is not all that complex,” he said. “The more you strip off that complexity, the better it is overall. We take the mystery out of it.”

Hicks has good reason to know this. He’s been CIO for three years, and his first year in the position was very sobering. There was not enough communication between the IT department and other departments, and there was a lot of misunderstanding about the IT department’s role in the company. Meeting regularly and sending out regular reports has helped to demystify the IT department.

But Hicks cautioned against too much communication. If there are too many meetings, too many reports, too many details shared with other departments, the communication gets lost. “I think that you lose your voice when that happens.”

Employ multiple communication levels
Croswell Chambers, CIO and vice president of Lexmark, said he focuses his communication on three levels of personnel worldwide at Lexmark: the business area, the general employee population, and IT employees.

The business area includes C-level personnel and other high-ranking Lexmark employees who gather in monthly meetings. During these meetings, they receive updates on operations and discuss upcoming initiatives and overall strategy. These monthly meetings are augmented with quarterly staff meetings with division executives. There also are bimonthly board meetings and regular IT planning meetings.

The general employee population receives regular corporate newsletters, which include at least two articles from the IT department. One recent topic was upcoming broadband connectivity service that the IT department implemented. Chambers said he is careful to include any “key significant win that we had in IT, something which provided real value to the company.” Gathering resources for these articles is as simple as getting the right people within IT who know what’s going on and getting together with the folks who can put it into words for corporate communications, Chambers said.

Chambers also sponsors and participates in brown bag and other open meetings. “It’s an opportunity for me to present what IT is doing for them, but it’s also a chance for them to tell me what they would like from IT.” In addition, Chambers encourages quality circle meetings between IT personnel and administrative assistants, engineers, sales support, and other “pockets of users who use IT slightly differently from the rest of the population,” he said. “We try to make sure we know what their needs are.” The general Lexmark employee also can receive news from and about IT via special events or awareness meetings. One recent topic was password security.

To communicate directly with his IT employees, Chambers participates in monthly roundtable gatherings. These face-to-face meetings are tough to set up within a worldwide company like Lexmark, so IT employees are randomly selected for these open topic meetings. “Whatever they want to talk about,” Chambers said. “It’s an opportunity for me to listen to them speak candidly about their ideas and concerns.”

Chambers cautioned that his efforts to communicate about IT with the rest of the company isn’t stopping there. His department is looking at implementing a value-added scorecard to more closely align the department with the company’s key business strategies, initiatives, and objectives. If all goes as planned, this new system will be implemented in the next year. “We’re always looking at news ways to better the company,” he said.

Take advantage of technology
BMC Software is a $1.3 billion company used by 80 percent of Fortune 500 companies to help manage their enterprise systems, applications, and databases. For a company that size, internal communication is crucial, and the IT department is not excluded.

With an eye toward fostering effective executive communication, BMC executives formed the Business Optimization Leadership Team (BOLT), a small group of top executives, including Jay Gardner, CIO. The group meets regularly to decide the direction of BMC’s business and IT services. “BMC developed this consortium, as they know how difficult it is for executives to make time for meetings and think that if executives have a dedicated team framework, they will be able to share ideas and reach several of their peers in one sitting,” said a BMC press release describing BOLT.

In addition, these executives communicate using the latest technology: Blackberries, wireless e-mail, and cell phone. Through these technologies, each member of the executive team has access to the Dashboard, an application that tracks the key performance indicators within the company. Indicators track sales order revenue, expenses, customer support activity, and employee attrition.

Appoint IT points of contact
Teradata is a $1 billion division of NCR and a leader in data warehousing. CIO Steven Dippold said he pairs a service program director with appropriate representatives in other departments, such as vice president of sales or the head of marketing. The service program director acts as that person’s point of contact with the IT department.

Meanwhile, Dippold conducts a variety of meetings. The steering committee, made up of vice presidential-level personnel and their staff, meet with senior program directors and other IT department personnel. Topics discussed during these two-hour sessions include evaluation and review of the status of IT initiatives, product status, future operations, and new projects and goals.

Dippold also encourages the periodic meeting of cross-steering committees, as well as teams within IT. For instance, the leadership team, business units, and other interdepartmental teams will discuss a variety of targeted topics, including budgets, IT initiatives, goals, long-range plans, and other departmental strategies. Other meetings are less formal but just as important, Dippold said. He participates in and sponsors Web and face-to-face forums, roundtable discussions, brown bag sessions, and other gatherings. “These usually focus on horizontal services,” he said.

Dippold’s strategy evolved during his four years as Teradata’s CIO. “We had a completely centralized IT department four years ago,” he explained. “At times, it wasn’t as easy as it could be to recognize problems to be solved in IT.” The system of pairing key company personnel with IT service program directors, along with the other meetings, developed over time, and the system continues to evolve, he said.