IT chiefs see role as teacher

An influential group of IT directors is putting forward solutions to an age-old problem of IT management - how to communicate the...

An influential group of IT directors is putting forward solutions to an age-old problem of IT management - how to communicate the benefits of IT and promote change in an organisation.

Hazel Ward

Most IT heads spend up to half their time trying to find ways to communicate the benefits of new technology to unwilling users and business leaders, according to the Computer Weekly 500 Club, which includes IT directors from the UK's top 500 companies.

Last week at the Post Office's innovation labs in Rugby, a group of 30 IT directors admitted that they were spending a high percentage of their time trying to break down the barriers to understanding in order to reach reluctant users at all levels within the company.

Peter Hagedoorn, chief information officer at Hagemeyer, a Dutch business-to-business distribution company, said, "Up to 50% of my time is spent in discussions about how to get things moving. As an IT director, you are acting as an agent of change and what you are doing is making moves to safeguard the future of the business.

As a global player, Hagemeyer is a conglomerate of 90 operating companies, all of which have differing levels of technology adoption, Hagedoorn said. "Many of these companies are family-owned businesses that are not used to working within a virtual enterprise."

To deal with the problem, Hagedoorn set up a number of competence centres to get where these operating companies could discuss what each business was doing in the different parts of Europe. "It was a real culture change but [setting up these competence centres] was the best way to do it," he said.

A certain amount of friction can help in getting organisational change started, according to one 500 Club IT director, who asked not to be named. "You find yourself asking awkward questions, acting as the 'grit in the oyster' that you hope will eventually turn into the pearl," he said.

Another approach was to make users do some of the work for you, said John Dodds, head of IS at the Treasury. He said it was important to make users feel like they were breaking down the barriers themselves, rather than being corralled into change.

"It is practically useful to build up a network of enthusiasts, or 'champions', who can act as missionaries in carrying forward new technology. It is an important part of my job - which takes perhaps 20% of my time," he said.

According to Bob Jackson, group IS director at Renold, an international engineering group based in Manchester, breaking down barriers to understanding was a big issue, particularly for traditional manufacturing sectors such as engineering.

In Renold's case, the year 2000 problem alerted the business to the importance of IT. "All of a sudden, people woke up to the fact that their business could collapse [without IT] and they began to take more interest."

In addition, the high profile of e-business, which comes under close scrutiny from investors, was helping IT break down barriers with business units, he said.

But Jackson explained that the hardest part of the process was getting started. "It can be a bit like turning the QEII: it is slow at the start, but once it gets going it gains momentum."

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