Selling IT to the business

As often as not, the IT department is the least popular department of an organisation, among both employees and executives. Indeed, a look at the research into the relative popularity of the various departments over the years finds the IT function in a constant tussle with human resources for the bottom spot.

Volumes could be filled with possible explanations for this ill feeling towards IT. Perhaps it is personal; the stereotypical IT worker is not the most gregarious of employees. Perhaps it is more practical; IT is often the department that reminds executives of the true cost of their great new idea, that can’t fix an employee’s PC fast enough, that is interrupting email service for two hours for routine maintenance.

But one thing is clear, though: IT has an image problem. And that problem is not
a superficial one. If IT is to be able to fulfil its potential, it needs the co-operation, the buy-in and the respect of colleagues in other departments.

Typically, though – and this speaks to the root of the problem as well as the IT department’s inability to fix it – it lacks the communication and self-promotion skills required to improve its standing with ‘the business’. For example, seldom will an IT manager set aside time for no other purpose than to improve his or her relationship with cross-departmental peers.

More amenable to the analytical and rational mindset of the typical IT professional is the view that the best way to improve the department’s reputation is simply to do a good job. This may well be the case, but – the world being what it is – doing a good job is rarely enough. Furthermore, a poor relationship with the business can prevent the IT function from doing a good job in the first place, or for it to be recognised as such.

Some IT departments, however, take these matters into their own hands. The IT director of an investment bank, speaking at one of Information Age’s recent off-the-record roundtable discussions, told how IT employees routinely organise informal meetings with departmental managers, not with any specific project in mind but to swap information on what they are working on, what they hope to do in future and what is technically possible at any given time. He described the process as “internal advertising”.

For some, developing the ability to improve the relationship with the business, to ensure that channels of communication are open and active, and to enhance the standing of the department within the organisation is the single most pressing challenge facing IT leaders today.

“The whole perception of IT within the business is terrible,” says Peter Hinssen, an e-commerce veteran and author on the relationship between business and IT. “This has to be the number one priority for CIOs.”

A question of style

One frequently cited cause for the poor relationship between IT and business is a mismatch of communication styles.

“We all have a communication style, be it spirited, considerate, direct or systematic,” says Dominic Walters, chair elect of the British Association of Communicators. “Most people who specialise in IT are systematic; this means they are low-profile and logical in their communication.”

“They will have all the facts at their fingertips, but they can be completely dull,” he says, articulating the familiar perception of IT workers amongst business staff.
One way to improve mutual understanding is to tailor communications – be they presentations, emails or even conversations – to the preferred style of the recipient, says Walters.

“By helping IT employees to understand communication styles, managers can help them to get their point across much more effectively,” he explains. “For example, they might tailor what they say to a more ‘spirited’ style, by appealing to emotion or putting jokes in.” Indeed, taking greater consideration of the recipient is the key to improving communications overall, says Walters. “People from technical functions such as IT are often guilty of focusing on the things that they produce,” he explains. “They can come across as though they don’t understand the issues of other people.”

A rule of thumb for explaining new projects in such a way that relates to the recipient is to address four simple questions, says Walters; what it is that is going to be done, why it is being done, what people will notice as a result, and how it will help them.

And, of course, jargon must be kept to a minimum. “There is a tendency in this country to show you have a grasp of a subject if you can express it in a complex way,” Walters says. “You don’t have to simplify your argument, but you do have to explain it in plain English.”

This is especially true at the top level, he adds. “CIOs have long argued that they should have a place at the board table,” he explains. “However, there are some responsibilities that go along with that. CIOs need to be able to understand how a business talks, and get on the same wavelength as the three great offices of state, the CEO, the CFO and the COO.”

“You might argue that they need to do their bit as well [by finding out what technical terminology means],” Walters adds. “But the only person whose behaviour you can truly change is your own.”

On target

These tips chime with the experience of Owen Powell, IT director at the Arts Council England, who over the past year has overseen an IT support centralisation project that needed to be ‘sold’ to the business. “It wasn’t a particularly easy sell,” he recalls. “We knew that taking away the local support staff from the regional divisions would cause some anxiety.”

Powell reports that accommodating employees’ respective mindsets was key to making the case. “Standing in front of people, talking about ITIL and what exactly was going to happen was useful, in that it prepared them for the changes, but it wasn’t a particularly effective selling technique,” he recalls. “You have to give them the confidence that the processes are in place to resolve the issues they feel might arise. It’s very much about addressing people’s perceptions.”

At Arts Council England, that meant letting the various departments know that their particular concerns had been considered. “When we were talking to the finance department, for instance, we had to acknowledge that certain finance processes are mission-critical and that we would offer assurances that those services would be prioritised in the event of any interruption.”

For Graham Benson, IT director at online clothes retailer M and M Direct, this targeted communications strategy is key to maintaining a fruitful relationship with other parts of the business. “Ultimately, the success of any communication depends on the person who receives it, not who transmits it,” he says. “A one-size-fits-all approach does not work.”

Furthermore, when pitching a new project, Benson argues, formal communications are not enough. Lobbying key stakeholders within the organisation on a one-to-one, face-to-face basis, he argues, is essential to building support. “With one-to-one lobbying, you can articulate your argument in a way that is suitable for the recipient,” he says.

“What you want is for [all the stakeholders] to be in support of a project before you present it to a group, because trying to justify it to a group is much harder,” he explains. “The finance director will want a different justification than the marketing director, for example.”

Another crucial tip for pitching projects to the board, Benson says, is to provide a ‘do-nothing option’, an explanation of the consequences of taking no action around a given issue.

“Very few business cases that I’ve seen include a do-nothing option,” he explains. “There is usually an assumption that the business will understand the need. But the trouble is that it makes commercial people feel as though you’ve got them over a barrel, that they have no option but to spend some money.” That, Benson adds, builds resentment between colleagues, and impairs the chances of project success.

Service marketing

For many organisations, the motivation for improving communications between IT and the business has been their adoption of the ITIL framework, which advocates operating the IT department as though it is a third party supplier. The logical result is that the IT department must ‘market’ its services to its ‘customers’.

However, some believe that this approach is divisive. “You don’t normally hear sales and marketing [employees] talk about their relationship with the business,” says M and M Direct’s Benson. “We create a divide by talking about IT and ‘the business’.”
Perhaps controversially, Benson rejects the ITIL-endorsed observed wisdom that the best way to manage an IT department is to sign service-level agreements (SLAs) with ‘the business’ to which the department must adhere.

“I don’t implement internal SLAs; they don’t make sense outside of a commercial agreement,” he explains. “Instead, we have statements of intent about what we are going to try to achieve.”

One reason for this attitude, says Benson, is that commercial employees tend to assume that the worst-case scenario that IT departments typically build in to SLAs to cover their backs – such as “we will respond to a given interruption in no more than four hours” – is the best they can expect. This obligation to manage down the business’s expectations further impairs the standing of IT within the organisation. “That’s why in my experience, SLAs normally do more harm than good.”

There is a fundamental contradiction at the heart of IT’s relationship with the business if they adopt an ITIL-driven, quasi-service provider model. On one hand, it must remain distinct from ‘the business’, acting as a self-contained unit with its own performance targets.

But on the other hand, it must stay close to ‘the business’, to understand its requirements implicitly, and to anticipate its future needs. Indeed, to sacrifice this familiarity with the business would be to jettison the one thing that any

IT department can offer that its competition – namely an external outsourcing provider – cannot.

This contradiction is apparent in the way that Nicholas Triantafyllou, head of IT at London’s Barbican arts complex, speaks about his interactions with end users. As a seasoned proponent of ITIL, Triantafyllou uses the term ‘customer’ to refer to internal end users. “Within the IT department, we refer to end users as customers because we want to provide them the best service possible,” he explains.

“But we don’t refer to end users as customers when we talk to them,” he adds. “When you are working with them, you have to be seen as part of their team. You cannot be seen as just the IT expert, because you immediately create a barrier.”

This is not to say the relationship between IT and ‘the business’ at the Barbican is a conflicted one. In fact, Triantafyllou believes it is a particularly positive relationship, thanks to explicit measures to maintain it such as making IT staff actually do the job of their end users for brief periods. This gives them first hand experience of their “customers’’ working lives.

“I actually worked in the box office selling tickets, to understand how the staff there use our ticketing system and also to understand the users’ frustrations with it,” he explains. “So when they have a complaint, I don’t think it’s just the box office moaning again; I have had personal experience of how frustrating a system slowdown can be, and the pressure they are under.”

Embedded IT

The idea of embedding IT in the business – but on a permanent rather than temporary basis – is the kernel of author Peter Hinssen’s radical solution to the classic IT/alignment problem.

“We’ve been talking about improving IT and business alignment for fifteen years,” he says. “And in those fifteen years, the problem has only got worse.”
For Hinssen, the very concept is flawed. “If the IT department is perfectly ‘aligned’ to the business, all you have is the perfect butler,” he says.

Instead, the very distinction between the two must be removed. By way of justification for this viewpoint, Hinssen points to Procter & Gamble, where CIO Filippo Passieri has undertaken the revolutionary move of attaching all IT workers to specific units of the business (having outsourced many of the ‘commodity’ IT functions to Hewlett-Packard). Compensation for IT staff is based on both their technical performance and the performance of the business unit in which they operate.

The effects have been dramatic, Hinssen reports. For one thing, employee satisfaction in the IT department, which was previously consistently the lowest in the organisation, has soared. “Now people are fighting to get jobs in IT,” he says. That is because the role of an IT employee has changed, from technical workhorse to innovation leader, says Hinssen.

That change in relationship is the Holy Grail for most CIOs. But the radical steps Procter & Gamble had to undertake to achieve it reflects badly on today’s orthodox IT management practices.

But that does not mean that IT leaders for whom such dramatic organisational change is simply not an option are condemned to the dysfunctional, servile and almost abusive relationship that typically exists between IT and ‘the business’. For many, the simple realisation that the IT department could do with a touch of PR may be enough to set the two parties on the road to reconciliation.

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

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