What’s the first thing that pops into your head when you hear the term “internal client”? Most IT managers probably think about the various business unit leaders who drive most IT project development. After all, despite all the current emphasis on building interdisciplinary teams, at most organizations, IT departments exist to serve the various departments. (Now before you start warming up your flame mail to me, I agree completely that IT is a strategic advantage to successful organizations. I’m simply making the point that most large-scale projects are initiated outside the IT department.)

The bottom line: When you hear the term “internal client,” odds are you’re thinking about the folks on the other side of the table. In this column, however, I want you to think about those occasions when the shoe’s on the other foot. What kind of client are you?

Two kinds of internal clients
If you were to take the time to chart the workflows for everything you do, you’d find that there are two main situations in which you function as an internal client. The first happens when you use other support departments within your organization: Accounting or Human Resources, for example. The second occurs when you need the support of other groups within the IT department. We’ll look at both of these in turn.

Dealing with other departments
As a technical manager, you often have to get the support of other departments such as Accounting and HR. In my experience, Accounting and IT usually have a decent working relationship. This could be due to a couple of factors. First, Accounting and IT spend a lot of time together. Since, in many organizations, IT comprises the largest portion of the capital expense budget, senior IT managers are forced to understand Accounting’s concerns. Further, since many organizations lease a good deal of their hardware, this fact provides additional opportunities to work with Accounting. Finally, as IT operations continue to be outsourced, IT managers have learned to analyze their functions with the same financial lens that accountants use—if only to provide arguments against outsourcing!

On the other hand, the relationship between an IT manager and his or her counterpart in HR is more problematic. Much of this is no doubt due to the rapid changes in what IT has asked of HR over the past two or three years. It wasn’t too long ago that IT managers were all over their HR peers, looking to ramp up hiring as IT spending exploded. Getting qualified people in the door was a nightmare for many companies.

After they were hired, IT managers still needed help. As they deployed new technologies, they looked to HR to help provide the training necessary to support these efforts. Finally, after new hires were on board and trained, technical managers worked with HR to help retain staff, developing compensation and incentive plans to discourage poaching by other firms.

What a difference a year makes!

While retaining your best people remains a tough job, no matter what the business climate, hiring and training new employees isn’t a top priority for most organizations. All too many companies moved in the opposite direction over the past year, shedding staff they had sweated blood to hire and train just the previous year. In such an environment, a little tension between HR and IT management is normal.

Dealing with other groups within IT
What has surprised me while reading some of the posts in our Discussion Center over the past several months is the level of discord that can exist between groups within the same IT department.

I think there are two main reasons for this. First, many IT managers don’t think they need to honor existing processes when dealing with an internal IT project. For example, a technical manager rightly insists that a business driver create a feature specification when proposing a custom application. However, that same IT manager might not feel the need to create such a spec when proposing an application that is internal to the IT department. The same thing can happen with deadlines. Tasks that take five days when requested by Manufacturing, for example, should be done in three days when requested by another group within the IT department. Even worse, a technical manager might not turn in a deliverable on time, because he or she “knows” there is some padding in another group’s estimate.

Second, since IT managers are usually on the other side of the table during client discussions, they aren’t as familiar with the tips used by successful business drivers when shepherding a project. For example, a technical manager might not see the need to promote his or her project in an effort to build support. In a perfect world, of course, one shouldn’t have to extol the virtues of a project just to get people fired up about working on it. However, since we live in the real world, it behooves an IT manager trying to get a project done by other departments within the IT group to spend some time on publicity.

In other words, when acting as internal clients, too many IT managers focus on the process side of project management and not on the personalities.

Find a role model
Maybe the best piece of advice I can give is to find a role model. Surely within your organization is a business driver that has impressed you with his or her ability to drive projects through your IT department. Look at how that person works the process, and learn from his or her example.