It’s Easy to Blame IT

Sitting in a marketing offsite meeting earlier this week, someone complained about IT not providing users with the latest computer. While I understood his sentiment, I was annoyed with the easy, uninformed jab. I interjected that it was financial not an IT issue, but this fell on biased ears. It is not the first nor last time I will hear a comment like this. Heck, I made the same comments before I joined IT.

Let’s face it – IT is easy to blame. Our environments are old, complex and challenging to maintain. We sacrifice user experience to incorporate governance and security. We introduce changes that impact our users for better (and occasionally worse). We scale back and offshore our help desks to save money. We don’t invest enough to provide innovative, user-savvy experiences. And, frankly, our IT communications usually don’t help our cause.

While some of this is out of our control, our users’ negative perception has compounded for years. However, here are a few ways to start turning this around.

Be transparent. No need to go into great detail, but providing some context about why we are doing something will help. For instance, cite a change in policy or business decision that is driving a change. That said, it’s not about placing blame – we are business partners and enablers, so be reasonable.

Communicate clearly. Provide fewer, more meaningful communications. I’m sure we’ve all received cryptic emails, outage messages, and ticket updates that are riddled with IT jargon or devoid of any helpful information. We can definitely make this easier for our users.

Arm your support teams. They are on the front lines with users, so make sure your support and help desk teams are knowledgeable, personable and reliable. And, provide them with the information and incentives needed to not only answer questions, but to offer helpful advice.

Empower ITers to be advocates. We interact with users every day, so make sure ITers are your first and best users and advocates for new services. That way, if there in a meeting in another part of the company, they can answer a question, provide a helpful tip or even correct a misunderstanding.

Most importantly, be patient. It took years to earn this reputation, so it will take time and dedication to enhance it. While we may not win them over entirely, they may be less inclined to complain about something and more apt give us the benefit of the doubt.

Hiring An IT Communications Pro

When I told a colleague I was leaving the public relations team at a Fortune 500 company to lead IT communications within the company, I got a sarcastic, “who wouldn’t leave PR for the glamorous world of IT?” I can’t blame him because I was also hesitant about the role until I met with the CIO and his chief of staff.

That said, this is a unique position for an IT organization, so here are a few traits to look for when hiring someone:

A communications background. This goes beyond some basic email writing and PowerPoint skills. You need a writer capable of turning complex products, technical information and, of course, IT-speak into concise and consumable information for your users.

PR sensibilities. You don’t need a PR person, but your communicator needs to be able to assess and determine the best way to approach or message a situation to users while enhancing or protecting the overall IT brand.

Multitasking. Given the hectic nature of IT, your communicator will be bombarded with requests to help with emails, slides, events and numerous other activities. He or she must manage the incoming and execute (or decline) accordingly.

Managing up. As this is a newer role in IT organizations, it’s safe to say people will want to default to how they have traditionally communicated and will pushback on some new approaches. Your communicator needs to be confident in his or her recommendations and comfortable pushing back and managing up when it makes sense.

Outside perspective. Not only will this help with capturing a true view of the user experience to enhance a communications, but your communicator can play devil’s advocate to ensure an approach is in the users’ and IT’s best interest.

I’m sure there are more traits. What did I miss?

Our Approach to IT Communications is Flawed

You can never over-communicate. I hear this all the time in IT, and while I like the sentiment, I disagree. We are all badgered daily with non-stop communications that we ignore, filter and block just to maintain some semblance of sanity.

That said, given the sheer number of times we need to communicate; the complexity of the messages; and our users’ ability (or inability) to consume the information, we need to rethink our approach to IT communications.  Here is what I mean:

  1. Traditionally, project teams default to previous communications plans, tactics and timelines. For instance, a preview email, a launch email, some supporting content, and a poster. It’s what we did last time. However, is there a better way to reach our users?
  2. Project teams also tend to be silo’d, so they may not realize there are other communications planned elsewhere in the organization. Rather than barraging our users with multiple messages, we should look for a more logical timeline, or even better, package similar project comms into one more impactful and easy-to-consume message.
  3. Email is not the only option. While not everyone uses the internal social media tools, perhaps your message will be better received from a different online or in-person channel. It really depends on how the users want to get their news, not what’s easiest for us.
  4. Deadlines are important in IT. However, sending a communications to hit a deadline does not mean it will be effective at driving usage or adoption. For instance, just because your project is ready on a Friday afternoon, doesn’t mean you send the email. People are already mentally starting their weekends, so the communications will be a dud.
  5. And finally, for fear of missing someone, IT teams love sending to widest audience even if the impact is minor. While we want to minimize user stress and avoid help desk calls, targeting a smaller, more appropriate group will likely be more effective.

Of course, I haven’t even mentioned how the message itself can make users to tune out. That is a blog (or two) for another day. In the meantime, consider the points above. What I’m suggesting is not unique, but it does require us to evolve how we approach communications in IT. What do you think?

Twenty Minutes Later

Coming from the wild world of public relations where I had a hand in the latest news, launches, and even the occasional crisis, I confess, IT did not seem like the sexiest choice or an obvious rung up the corporate ladder. However, after 15+ years writing press releases and pitching stories, I was also itching to explore something new.

Hourglass

Seven years ago, I met with the company’s CIO, who was looking to infuse more PR and marketing into the IT organization. To say the least, he is a dynamic, driven and persuasive personality. Twenty minutes later, I was convinced. Here’s why:

  • Selfishly, I knew leaving PR was the best way for me to advance my career. I did what I could there, but there were only so many positions to step into.
  • The CIO was an inspiring and rising star in the company. Even in a brief conversation, I could see he had a lot to offer the company (and me). As they say in those career advice articles, work for someone that inspires and can teach you something.
  • As a PR person in high tech, I learned the products, messaging and industry, but never fully understood what happens after a product is purchased. How does it get deployed? What are the hurdles? What if it doesn’t work? A look inside “black box” of IT would broaden my horizons significantly.
  • While the average person only thinks of IT when they have to call the help desk, IT is increasingly more intertwined in a company’s success. And, it is only going to get more exciting as companies look for ways to disrupt the competition and industry.
  • IT communications is a largely untapped profession. Sometimes there is a formal role or IT gets help from corporate communications. However, based on my experience, most people tasked with communicating in IT aren’t communicators. They may have leanings, but not formal backgrounds or roles.

I’m still in IT. It’s not always roses and rainbows, but I have worked alongside four CIOs, collaborated with thousands of ITers, and built a team to help me drive our executive, employee, internal and external communications. If you are just dabbling in IT communications or stepped into a formal role, I’ll be sharing my lessons learned here, so stay tuned.