Thought for the day: Buy-in depends on softer skills

Employee commitment to new working practices is crucial to project success, says Lindsay Wittenberg

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Employee commitment to new working practices is crucial to project success, says Lindsay Wittenberg





Changing human behaviour and culture in the NHS outstrips technological matters as the biggest challenge now facing the project, according to Aidan Halligan, joint head of the national programme for IT in the NHS (Computer Weekly, 20 April). And he's not alone.

Increasing numbers of organisations are realising that without the commitment of employees to new working practices, an organisation's successful take-up of IT won't happen.

Successful change means handling people's emotions. The most sophisticated systems are white elephants unless the people who use them understand their new roles, feel valued and involved, and are motivated to do new things in new ways.

Introducing a new system, on whatever scale, means that the changes need to be sold within the organisation, with buy-in all the way down from the top.

Organisations with a command-and-control culture, like the NHS, could manage transition more smoothly and efficiently - and run a lower risk of losing or de-motivating key personnel - by plugging in to how their people feel about those changes.

The culture of the organisation needs to be honest and open in its communications, a willingness to listen to all sides of a question - including those that are unpalatable or difficult - and ensuring that employees feel secure enough to share bad news or facts that disturb the status quo.

But this people-centred approach is heresy in too many IT departments. It demands a style of leadership which paints a clear vision and purpose, ensures that learning and mistakes are valued, allows people on the ground to be given a say and, most important of all, listens.

It is a challenging task for IT directors who focus on short-term and budgets rather than what drives the people behind them. Human beings' best performance depends not only on technical skills and intellect but also, crucially, on the quality of their relationships with colleagues. This means their leaders motivating (rather than demanding), empathising, and making it easy for staff to contribute and develop new ideas.

For an IT director to shift to this kind of culture they must learn how to adopt a coach mentoring approach to leadership and management.

Research has shown the return on investment from coaching includes improvements in productivity; cost reductions; profitability and lower staff turnover.

The director's road can be a lonely one, and it can take courage to press ahead with a new initiative in the face of both scepticism and pressures.

Developing a scheme in which experienced colleagues can mentor junior colleagues in the IT department is also worth considering.

The benefits are felt not only by the mentoring partner but throughout the organisation.

Lindsay Wittenberg is a consultant specialising in performance coaching and career development

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