There's nothing odd about IT lacking influence in the business. The unpalatable truth is that the business sees IT as a bunch of geeks with strange skillsets and an incomprehensible language.
So what do you do about it? Your first step is to raise IT's profile and build its credibility. This requires co-ordinated planning and PR skills. Recent examples I have been involved with include the helpdesk team going walkabout to get feedback and pass on simple tips on how best to use its service. This alone brought a significant and rapid symbolic difference to the perception of IT - and a 20% reduction in what the helpdesk classified as "wasteful" calls.
Another department held three 'byteback' sessions with senior managers to face the music and start tuning in to what IT was failing to deliver. Careful preparation ensured most invitees attended, the meeting was facilitated by an external professional, and strong follow-up helped to raise IT's profile enormously.
In another case a clear contingency plan allowed IT to communicate clearly and regularly with users when things went wrong. There was clear accountability for individuals to communicate by e-mail what was happening and why, when normal services would resume, and to pick up the phone to key people in the business to demonstrate they were doing everything possible to correct the situation.
Sometimes covering basic interpersonal and presentation skills under the banner of 'business focus' can make all the difference. Account managers have to learn how to get onto an equal footing with stakeholders, how to say no and provide alternative solutions, how to avoid being seen as negative or defensive, and how to present IT to senior management in a way that engages the audience and has them seeing a direct link to the bottom line within seconds.
If IT is seen to be making an effort, then the business will be remarkably forgiving. But building profile is only half the story. IT has to deliver, which involves a lot more than running a tight operational ship. It's as much about communication as technical skill.
Often IT fails to make it obvious what its priorities are. And when IT is challenged, poor interpersonal skills only encourage users to treat the department as a whipping boy. The only way to change this is by taking the initiative and learning the art of managing expectations. IT priorities need to be clearly agreed and communicated. That way, everyone knows what they're going to get, and when. Even if people are still unhappy or impatient, IT is far less likely to be scapegoated.
Communication helps the way IT is perceived, but it can also help IT do its job better. For example, many IT departments are appointing relationship managers. This involves identifying the right people in IT to 'mark' the key influencers in the business and develop a good understanding with them.
In one recent example, the IT relationship manager's role was to manage the high-level two-way communication between IT and the relevant business unit. The single point of contact focused conversations on how the two could work together without preventing others in both IT and the business unit communicating at their own operational level. Crucial to success was that the relationship manager knew exactly what was going on at the various levels. Co-ordination, communication, even negotiation both outside and within IT are critical qualities. So how does this help IT do its job? It allows IT to tune in very quickly to what's going on, so it can regroup and work out a co-ordinated response, resist where appropriate, and manage expectations. By influencing without authority, relationship managers help develop a business-focused culture within IT.
The message is clear. A user-focused approach based on marketing, communication and relationships is critical to IT.
Jeremy Ashworth is managing consultant of Wakeup, which works closely with IT to develop influence and leadership internally. For more information, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org