Why are IT departments still looked down upon as “service” centers instead of equal business partners? When was the last time you heard a CXO describe employees in other departments as his or her “customers?” Yet, arguably, these other departments provide a service to the organization not unlike IT. Let’s face it, every department provides a service to the organization. We are all in it together, right?
They’re your business partners, not your customers
In order for your IT department to become a core competitive strength for your organization, you have to begin by gaining equal footing with your business partners. That’s right, your fellow colleagues are your “business partners,” not your “customers.” The only customers you should acknowledge are the ones that buy your company’s products and services. And, forget about using the “internal customer” lexicon, it doesn’t get you any further in gaining parity. When I worked for Pepsi-Cola, in the late 90’s, the CIO at the time lived by this very same philosophy. Interestingly, I attended a CIO Magazine conference some ten years later where he gave a talk. He hit upon the same points about the importance of treating business colleagues as your partners, not your customers. I figure that if I guy as bright as the former CIO of Pepsi-Cola kept this ideology for that length of time, he must be on to something.
Use your analytical strengths to position your department
IT leaders are generally bad at promoting their departments? Perhaps it’s our introverted nature, or that we have been so beaten down over the decades that we actually believe that we are not worthy of such equivalence. Rubbish! Anyone that has climbed to the CIO title cannot be that introverted. We must have successfully conveyed our strengths to CXOs at some point in our career. We are also known to be highly analytical people, so why not leverage that strength and begin to methodically list your department’s successes over the last quarter or so and plans for the next quarter? As technology becomes intertwined with business processes, we have a tremendous opportunity to leverage our technical skills and knowledge of the business to enrich the experiences of our real customers.
Create a communication program
After you have taken a moment to contemplate the achievements and initiatives that will help you promote your department, you are ready to begin considering ways to best market the value of IT to your business partners. First, it is important to understand that communication happens at all levels within IT – not just with the CIO. Although, the CIO certainly sets the tone and helps create the communication channels. While it is desirable for communication to naturally flow throughout the organization, you will benefit from creating a structured communication program. A communication program helps you to define your audience, key messages, and frequency of your communications. If you’re fortunate enough to have the budget, hiring a full time communication specialist is optimal. Otherwise, you will need to identify someone in your department to assist you with the communication program part time.
Define your audience
In every organization, there are many different audiences that an IT department needs to address. Obviously, you will need to tune your communication program accordingly. There are eight main categories of stakeholders you should consider, including: the entire organization, functional areas, IT department, presidents and department heads, technology partners, business suppliers, customers, and job applicants.
Audience 1: The entire organization
Let’s start with your broadest audience: the entire organization. Yes, you need to communicate to everyone in your company, not just the department heads. In fact, it’s a good idea to send a welcome email to every new employee that joins your company. It is likely that your Help Desk already sends some sort of email to new employees once they have been setup with a network ID. So, why not add to the message and describe your department’s vision, mission and goals. It doesn’t cost you a dime and it helps you make a great first impression with all new employees. Also, given the size of this group, quarterly newsletters and scorecards typically work well. This group is diverse, so your messages will need to be very broad. Consider including hyperlinks in newsletters and scorecards that help readers get to content that is specific to their department (e.g., purchasing, marketing, etc.). If you really want to get sophisticated, consider creating an annual report for IT.
Audience 2: Functional areas
If you are good at building relationships with your peers – as you should be – you may be fortunate enough to occasionally receive an invitation to conduct a short presentation at one of their department meetings. Take it! Always, always, jump at the chance to get in front of as many people as possible in your organization. It is a wonderful opportunity to share achievements, current initiatives, and plans. It is also a great opportunity to answer questions and address any hot buttons that are on their minds. It is important to customize your message for the specific audience. If you are speaking to the sales and marketing department, talk about how your team is adding value to sales and marketing. You may want to refrain from spending a lot of time sharing accounting initiatives with this audience, unless you want to put them to sleep.
On a similar note, you can benefit from establishing a CIO Roundtable with employees in your department as well as across the organization. It is recommended to have these meetings over breakfast or lunch with no more than ten people, which makes it more interactive. While the Roundtables are, again, a great opportunity for you to share information, they represent an excellent forum for you to listen to your audience. You can get your best ideas from roundtables with people from different audiences. To get your feet wet, start with having these sessions with just your team and expand from there.
Some organizations form committees to define standard processes and prioritize projects. Communicating effectively with these groups is critical because they are your champions and ambassadors to the rest of the organization. Customarily, IT functional owners (relationship managers) will participate in these committees to align IT resources with business priorities. It is very important that minutes from these meetings are disseminated to other stakeholders in the company so they are aware of the alignment. Consider summarizing the key decisions and priorities and including the information in your IT scorecards (i.e., top 10 priorities for purchasing, accounting, etc.).
Audience 3: IT department
Obviously, you need to communicate well with your own department so that everyone is aligned with the vision, mission, goals, and objectives of the department. People want to understand how they fit into the big picture. So, start by creating departmental goals and cascading those goals to every member in your department. As your goals are cascaded throughout the department, each employee adds their own objectives that help fulfill the department’s goals. By performing this exercise, they understand how they are contributing to the success of the department.
Once performance objectives are in place for every employee, you can use your full staff meetings to update the staff on achievements and plans for each of the goals. Employees enjoy seeing their projects up on the slides and are proud that they are part of bigger picture. Use your staff meetings to publically recognize employees for their efforts.
Depending upon the size and geography of your staff, you can also use written communications to update your staff on departmental initiatives. Although, staff meetings are generally better for your staff because you can open up the floor and address their questions and concerns.
Audience 4: Presidents, board members and department heads
Presidents, board members and department heads represent another category of business partners that you need to communicate with on a periodic basis. The medium and frequency of communication with this group greatly depends upon the size and geography of the company. Ideally, in person meetings work best with CXOs, board members and other VIPs. Alternatively, there may be opportunities to present at leadership meetings or at their department meetings where they are present. Some of these stakeholders may read your scorecards and newsletters, but don’t depend on that being your only communication medium because they have a lot to read and your written communications will end up on the bottom of their reading list.
Audience 5: Technology partners
Technology partners represent another category of stakeholders to communicate with on a regular basis. Again, IT functional owners are usually assigned to technology partners and act as relationship managers. You may want to consider inviting your key partners to your IT management meetings, or even staff meetings, where they can present their new products and roadmaps. Also, the functional committee members mentioned above may be interested in attending these sessions.
Audience 6: Business suppliers
If you are heavily into supply chain management, you are already meeting with your company’s suppliers. If you’re not meeting with these suppliers, get them on your communication radar. The stronger your relationships with this group, the more opportunity you will have to help the company streamline processes and reduce costs. Some companies use newsletters to communicate with their business suppliers. If this is the case with your company, be sure to get a column in the newsletter and have someone on your team author articles that are relevant to the business suppliers.
Audience 7: Customers
Customers are certainly another critical stakeholder to consider when defining your communication plan. Your ability to communicate with customers varies dramatically by industry. For instance, if you’re a supplier to retailers, you generally have the opportunity to meet with your customers to discuss supply chain related topics. If your customers are consumers, the chances of you having direct contact with them is limited, if at all, even though you may have technology in place that they use to interact with your company (e.g., company website, portal). Still, with a little thought and creativity there are ways to get pertinent messages across to your customers. Companies are now using social media to interact with customers and this is a great medium for you to use to convey how your company is using business technology to enrich the customer experience.
Audience 8: Job applicants
Many prospective employees are interested in understanding the technology that is available at the company that they are considering working at. If your company is using social media such as Facebook, consider using that medium to highlight technologies in use at your company and what your department is up to. Some companies actually create brochures for their IT departments to attract both IT candidates and candidates for other departments. The career page on your company’s website is also an excellent medium to market how IT is being used.
By carefully thinking through your communication strategy and defining your plan, you can improve the image of IT in your organization, and perhaps your industry. It starts with positioning IT as a true partner to other business functions and transitioning away from being viewed as a mere service provider. It’s easier said than done, and actions clearly speak louder than words.