Strategy clinic: How do I break down 'them and us' divide?

My 10-strong IT team has good technical skills, but their poor personal interaction with users is creating a "them and us"...

My 10-strong IT team has good technical skills, but their poor personal interaction with users is creating a "them and us" divide. How can I help develop "soft" skills in the team? Can you really train someone in effective personal relations?


Observe your team's interaction with each other

You have raised two issues: the interaction between IT and users and training staff in personal relationship skills.

I would advise you to consider how your IT personnel interact with each other. If they integrate well as a team, it is unlikely they lack personal skills and you can save considerable time and expense by avoiding unnecessary personal skills training.

Communication problems between IT and users are common. They often have little to do with interpersonal skills and more to do with a lack of communication and goal alignment. Understanding one another's priorities and challenges is critical to effective interaction.

Many organisations appoint someone in a liaison role to act as an interface between business user departments and IT. This person may report to either IT or the business, but they would typically identify business needs, convey them to IT and communicate progress back to users. This provides a clear communications channel which should help break down the "them and us" barrier.

You should also consider the alignment of business and IT objectives and whether the targets upon which each department is measured can support common objectives.

It may be worthwhile setting up a service level agreement between IT and the business to clarify goals and procedures.

There are many organisations that provide personal skills training. They provide a "safe" environment to help staff recognise problems and techniques to address them. Secondments and joint social activities are also worth considering.

Paul Durkin, partner, Ernst & Young


Get some expert help so you do not alienate your team

First your team must recognise that there is a problem, and then they must accept that it is important and necessary to change.

This will necessitate engaging them at an emotional as well as intellectual level. If you succeed, they will have the passion, energy and enthusiasm to really want to do something differently. At this point engage an expert, someone who specialises in developing soft skills in technical people and who will not scare them off with anything too "fluffy".

To help your team develop soft skills it is critical you set up opportunities to review progress and give feedback in a supportive environment.

Robina Chatham, visiting fellow at Cranfield


Test your team's view of users at a workshop

The research we have conducted supports your view that the biggest skills gap is in soft skills, such as communication and influence.

It is easier to train a person in a technical area than to provide them with soft skills. However, a lot depends on the self-awareness of the individual and this can be tested with a workshop on measuring performance. If your team understands that customer perception is a reality and a valid measure, you have a chance. If, however, they hide behind CPU statistics of performance, you have a real problem.

Many IT managers bring an IT-literate business manager into the IT group. He or she is given a business analysis and account management role, interacting with the most critical user groups. The smart IT people will learn from this person and the others should either stay in the back office or be encouraged to look for a role that matches their technical aspirations.

Sharm Manwani, Henley Management College


Acknowledging the problem is a step in the right direction

It is good you have recognised the problem and are not defending the position - you are well on the way to success.

IT people often fall into the trap of seeing the IT delivery from "their" side and not appreciating the user. They talk about technical issues without realising users do not care and just want the application to work - the technicalities are of no interest to them.

Effective training is about changing the way your team members see things, understanding how the users see them and what they want in terms of service.

Training can use role play that puts your team in situations that can be related to users. It can help them understand that users are customers and how frustrating their position can be. It will also help your team to understand their role.

For this to be successful, you need to start selling the importance of the user as a customer to your team and make them understand that users could get their IT from alternative sources.

Roger Rawlinson, NCC Group


Make sure the team does not see itself as separate

You can certainly help people to improve the way they manage personal relationships, but be careful. We expect our technical people to be technical - whether they are in IT, finance, marketing or engineering. The "them and us" issue may be more to do with their attitude than a lack of soft interpersonal skills.

First, make sure that your technical people genuinely see themselves as part of the company you all work for. Make sure they do not see everyone else as "the business" and themselves as somehow separate.

Second, work with your executive colleagues to help your technical staff be articulate when they need to be in ways that non-technical people will understand.

This, rather than soft skills, is often the root of any interpersonal problems - we do not understand what technical people are telling us, and they do not know how to articulate what they are trying to say.

Chris PottsDominic Barrow


Get the team to see the value of winning over users

The first step is to get members of the team to accept that this is important. This is probably the hardest part, as they may well think, with some justification, that the users are not the greatest either.

So it may be, but that is no reason not to go the extra mile if the objectives of your business are to be met. Users grumble that IT people either talk down to them or are incapable of using plain English.

The example I usually quote is that I have no idea how an automatic gearbox works, and I do not want to know, but I do need someone who can explain to me what it does and what I have to do to use it properly in words I can understand.

We read every day that IT is fundamental to the success of the business. If users want anything other than a standalone PC, they are going to have to integrate with the IT infrastructure. So whether you provide everything in-house or whether users can ask for packaged or outsourced IT, they have to meet your standards for security, data integrity and interoperability.

No wonder sometimes users are resentful of the control IT has on the operations of the business, and are quick to complain if perfection is not apparent. This can make IT staff defensive as it appears that the complexity and potential vulnerability of the IT infrastructure is not understood and respected by users.

It is up to IT staff to get an understanding between them and the users that the benefits IT brings to the business have the price tags of design, development and risk, and the ultimate test of resilience under normal use.

Robin LaidlawComputer Weekly 500 Club


Computer Weekly has put together a panel of experts. You can draw on their specialist knowledge to solve a problem. E-mail your questions (or your own solution to this question) to

NCC Group

Ernst & Young

Cranfield School of Management

Computer Weekly 500 Club

Henley Management College

British Computer Society


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Dominic Barrow

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