IT will never be seen as a valued strategic business partner unless it can communicate its value to the business. But all too often, corporate IT fails to pay sufficient attention to the importance of communication within business.
At global engineering consultancy WS Atkins, which has a turnover of £1.15bn, 14,000 staff worldwide and projects ranging from flood prevention to transport systems, group IS director Lesley Hume has tackled the issue of how IT communicates with business across a broad front.
However, before she began looking at how IT communicated with business, Hume first established what communication was like within IT itself.
"I looked first at our own IT department and how we communicated with each other. You cannot communicate outwards if there is no culture of communication within your department," said Hume. "IT staff need to accept that communication is important."
To get that recognition, Hume used shock tactics, curtailing the use of e-mail inside IT. "IT professionals are extremely comfortable communicating only by e-mail. I made it a rule that the primary mode of communication had to be face-to-face, then by voice and then only lastly by e-mail."
The next tactic to jump-start communication was to ban private offices. Now, instead of being able to hide in their own offices and bays, staff are seated in an open floorplan. "There are quiet rooms when people need them, but no one has an office, even if their grade says they do - including me. I sit outside with everyone else," said Hume.
Next, Hume focused on internal communications and set up IT's own version of Question Time. "I do an hour-long, monthly Q&A session for all our 280 IT staff, most of whom are in the head office location. I prime my key communicators to go around the staff beforehand and ask if they have any questions that need answering at the session, because I know that some people just don't like putting their hands up in an open forum."
These IT Q&A sessions were the initial way that Hume started to draw IT and business closer. "I always invite someone from the business to the sessions to talk for about 15 minutes about what their role in Atkins is," she said.
"It can be a managing director of a strategic business unit, a project manager or someone from our corporate functions. For example, we asked the head of our legal department to come and talk to us about what her department did for the company. She was delighted - no one had ever asked her that before. The Q&A sessions are very good occasions for two-way communication. My staff get terrific insight into aspects of the business and the business staff who come get an insight in to IT."
Because of Atkins' diverse geography, Hume also video-conferences the Q&A sessions.
Then, having encouraged the business to come to IT, Hume's next move was to encourage the business to let IT come to it. "The challenge was how to get IT on to the agenda of the strategic business units' (SBU) operational and board meetings," said Hume.
Her method was to make an initial breach in the wall. "I infiltrated these meetings by requesting to present a half-hour update of what IT was currently doing" said Hume.
Very soon, that update became a regular event at SBU board meetings, with IT represented by IT managers whom Hume had sent on a two-day key account management training course to improve the way they handled their business users as clients.
"Every IT manager has their own day job, such as service delivery, but they also have a second job as a key account manager for an SBU, such as transport or design and engineering services," said Hume.
The investment in the two-day training courses was very rewarding, said Hume. "I saw the feedback we were getting from business improving. Having account managers has been vital in accelerating communication between IT and the business." As a bonus, such skills can also be used by IT in how it manages its own IT suppliers.
At first, business managers at the meeting used the opportunity of having IT managers in front of them to channel any complaints and problems with IT.
"There was a lot of trouble-shooting at first, but then we moved on to the value-add aspects of IT. However, to have any credibility in front of business managers, it is vital that IT gets the service delivery right before it starts to talk about adding value.
"We have found that account managers build trust and credibility by addressing the problems and issues first. Customers are then keen to use their account manager for heavier issues and value-add work."
Moreover, where once in the past someone in IT was invited in to do a presentation then leave before the end of the meeting, now in some business units they are there for the whole meeting. This is seen as a key measure of success and an indicator of increased levels of trust.
To get involvement in business strategy, Hume arranges a yearly conference between her department and the SBUs. High-level individuals from the business units meet to discuss their strategic aims for the coming year and how they feel IT may contribute to this.
Hume arranges for strategic suppliers and IT staff to present relevant ways in which technology can help to give an edge, accompanied by various workshop activities mixing business and IT staff.
"As with the creation of account managers, the first of these conferences was dominated initially with service delivery issues, but with perseverance, by the end of the day these were overcome and the business units saw the value of the conference."
Hume is also setting up an innovation centre, to showcase where and how IT can be cutting edge, and used to competitive advantage.
"The innovation centre is not actually about IT innovation, but more about business innovation," said Hume. "I would like it to be an incubator for innovation in all the engineering disciplines Atkins is involved in. The reason we're facilitating it is because nowadays there is almost always a large IT component in innovation."
As well as generating an IT presence at the level of individual SBU board meetings, Hume also targeted corporate management meetings.
"I now update the executive steering board with what is happening in IT. I can also present what the SBUs are asking for and what IT can do to help them. IT can be a great barometer for what is happening across a company because it has such a panoramic view of the whole organisation," said Hume.
Hume reports to the chief operating officer, as do the SBU's managing directors. "There is a lot of hype about getting IT on the board. Personally, I think that technology-focused companies are moving to an organisation structure where IT is represented, but I try not to get precious about it - it is more important to have influence rather than an empty formal entitlement."
According to Hume, it is essential to have a means of IT communicating to the business at the most senior level. "It is essential to speed up that information process. With business increasingly dependent on IT, the faster information can flow from IT to business and back, and from people to people, the more competitive an edge IT can confer."
12 steps for improving relationships within the business
- Communication starts inside IT. Create a culture of improved communication between IT staff first. Curtailing the use of e-mail and having open-plan office layouts forces more face-to-face talking.
- Start to draw the business into IT. Invite guest speakers from business units to IT Question Time - the speaker gets to know more about IT and IT staff get to know more about the speaker's department.
- Put IT managers through key account training, so that they know how to treat business users as valued customers.
- Start to take IT out into the business. Request time at business management meetings to present briefly on IT. Accept that business managers will use the opportunity to voice any complaints they have about IT before they are ready to discuss the strategic value of IT.
- As IT director, don't get hung up on whether you are on the board or not, but use your access to the board to maximise your influencing skills. Build good relations with key directors, including the COO, financial director and communications director.
- Showcase IT's achievements within a corporate Innovations Centre - set one up if there is not one - and invite key suppliers to talk about exploiting new technology for competitive advantage.
- Don't neglect traditional intra-corporate communications methods, such as newsletters and intranets.
- Hold IT surgeries in communal areas to encourage staff to present their IT problems, and lure them in with the latest IT gadgets.
- Use your training and service delivery staff to get feedback from staff when they are in business departments.
- Where appropriate, get IT in front of company clients, so that both they and business units see the value IT brings to winning new business.
- Cultivate and exploit the network of senior executive PAs who can be highly influential with their bosses.
- Keep the costs of your communications efforts low by using existing available channels.