Communicating the value of IT

My response to a BCS seminar as a developer within an average
small-medium size company.

Last year, as a member of the British Computer Society (BCS) I
attended a seminar held by Sherrilynne Starkie, of Strive PR entitled
“Communicating the Value of IT”. I remember it well. A room full of IT bods
(call them what you will), many of whom feel disenfranchised from their
colleagues and slightly under-valued. After all, people just don’t ring IT to
say “Gee, thanks, my computer is working just fine today” – and nor should they!

We were most enthused by this session, in which different suggestions were
made as to how IT can improve their image to the rest of the company. Walking
out of that room, I felt a warm glow as the ideas started to flow and images of
my colleagues lining up in a march of honour as the IT department took their
seats the next morning. Okay, well, maybe I was hoping for too much.

Sherrilynne’s message was simple: the key is to develop a better
representation of the department by tentatively introducing your colleagues to
the ideas and processes IT are involved in. How this can be achieved can range
from the traditional (and rather limited) technical approach of adopting
academic methodologies suchas DSCM, RAD, etc. that are aimed to effectively
ensure an accurate requirements capture by inviting users to read and comment on ideas and thoughts that emanate from the department. I definitely came away from the session with a distinct impression of what we did need as a department of 5: a PR manager!

Without the budget of a finance house, or the government, this was clearly
not an option. But we were introduced to some interesting alternatives. Most
companies have an Intranet, providing access to internal resources such as
expenses forms, files, etc. An Intranet can easily be improved by implementing
some form of community. A Blog or Forum would be an ideal way of encouraging
users to read about what IT are up to, and maybe comment on it.

Let’s consider where we were as an IT department within a SME. Our IT systems
are quite advanced, as we have sufficient IT resource to actively push and
improve the performance of internal systems. People ask for things, and 9 times
out of 10, we do them. No problem there. We try to make sure that people’s
machines are adequately specified for their jobs. No problem there. Where our
problems seem to occur is in inter-departmental communication and – more
importantly – communication.

This was in November last year (2006) and now, six months later, I
think I can blog about how the ideas I have implemented as a result of this
session went.

We have a new project coming soon, which is a new version of an existing
application. Since its implementation more than a year ago, we have had mostly
positive feedback, but some frustrations have been aired and suggestions made.
As the new version approaches the early conceptual stages, we thought “wouldn’t
it be useful if these ideas were captured?” We were using an existing forum
application for the internal knowledge base within IT, which was opened up to
include a new topic. This topic was then presented straight on to the Intranet
home page, with the clear message that anything can be submitted – anonymously – and every idea printed off and considered in subsequent specification
meetings. How better can you entice people to submit their thoughts?

Take-up of this has been slow, with many ideas being aired and submitted into
the system by IT. Two people who are not in IT have actively posted a couple of
ideas in there, but out of a company approaching 60 people with 90% of those
immediately involved with some aspect of this project, it was a pretty poor
show. The topic remains on the Intranet home page to this date, with most topics
submitted by IT on behalf of others. Reflecting on the reasons why this might
have failed led me to one concern by manager had (who was most enthusiastic
about the idea of opening up IT to our colleagues), which was that people don’t
go where they don’t normally go. They feel unsure, are they “allowed” in there?
What do they do when they get in there? It’s all seemed to be confusing for
them. Or maybe it’s the same old thing; complaining is easy, helping to solve
the problem requires effort.

Another issue I wanted to see addressing is the relationship between IT and
Marketing. IT are exposed to the latest in web standards and are keen to see
web-sites and other on-line resource developed in a usable and accessible
manner. Marketing are concerned about how to line things up, how to attract the
eye and the quality of the copy. There was always underlying tension between the
two departments, both having expertise in their area, but being reluctant to
give away ground to the other department. For instance, while Marketing used
capitals as a useful means of attracting the eye, IT would vehemently object to
this on account of readability on the web. In the end, to their absolute credit,
Marketing arranged to have a refresher course on web techniques using the
software they know. This has had the result that while we may not always agree,
we can be sure that the correct thought processes have been used and the end
decision has been made for reasons other than “it’s just done like that”, or “I
like it this way”. To the same extent, IT has had to step back, accepting that
it is not an IT role to dictate design. IT should perform the role they are good
at: which is to keep track of the latest web techniques and advise as
appropriate.

All in all, the session was very useful. I think that the uptake by users to
participate in discussion on the intranet has been a failure, to be honest. This
is a shame, as we have the resources and the enthusiasm to make this work – both
in IT and as raw ideas from people directly involved with the systems and
processes. For some reason, the link was never made between identifying a
problem and recording it in a specially created area. This is not to say that
capturing ideas was a complete failure. Ideas on how to improve some smaller
systems have been listened to and improved, but this tended to be on a more
one-to-one level; that is developer-to-stakeholder rather than, as perhaps we
had hoped, IT-to-company. What has been a success, as shown by the current
project we are involved in, is an improved understanding of roles and domains of
knowledge between the technically-minded and standards-aware IT and artistic and creative Marketing. While IT have made changes in their approach to their
colleagues, I feel the bigger effort has been made by Marketing and the improved
relationship is paying off.

I look forward to the next project ….

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