Bob Wittstein, CIO of Bentley University, shares pointers for getting your message out so that everyone can understand and appreciate what IT is doing.
How often do you feel misunderstood? We work so hard to support our organizations’ strategy, and to enable it through the implementation of technology. Yet, if you ask your colleagues what Information Technology (IT) is working on, they often have no strategic response. Maybe we hear “email” or “running the data center” or “installing the (you name it) ERP system.”
While this is an improvement from years ago, many still associate IT with a Saturday Night Live skit from 2001, “Nick Burns, Your Company’s Computer Guy,” featuring Jimmy Fallon. How can this still be the case in 2018? The answer is simple: we are technologists, and we need to be more active marketers. We need to rip the lid off of the proverbial IT black box for all to see.
Open a Window into IT
Bear with me for a moment and think of IT like a microbrewery – part operation and part tourist display. If I go to a microbrewery, I may not see all of the detailed operations, or how the secret sauce is made. However, there is a transparent window into the fermenting tanks or the bottling operations. They find just the right mix of things to show me to pique my interest without becoming boring.
IT needs to do the same. We do a lot of work that many are simply not interested in knowing about, and they want to be able to take for granted that results will just happen. However, much of what we do is directly tied to the business strategy, or is cool enough that just about anyone’s inner geek can appreciate it.
But, this article is not about IT being connected to the business strategy, as you have all read about and heard about this many times. I want to focus on how to get your message out in a meaningful way so that your organization and your colleagues on the leadership team know, understand and appreciate what IT is doing for them. I want to help eliminate the ‘what have you done for me lately?’ question.
Describe What Success Looks Like
So where do we begin? Start simple and use what you already have. Just start sharing. Let me use my current role as CIO of Bentley University to illustrate. We all have goals and most of us use these goals as the primary means for defining, communicating and managing projects and operational activity. Who knows about these goals and their status beyond the IT leadership team? How are they written? For IT folks or for the average user to understand?
Our IT goals at Bentley fell out of our strategy, but they were confusing when first written. I asked each member of the IT team responsible for each goal to tell me what successful completion of the goal looks like…in plain English. If we agree up front what success looks like, no one has to debate whether a goal is competed or not in the last month of the fiscal year. My advice is to do the same: write down what success looks like, and pick three or four milestones that, if completed on time, are likely indicators that the goal is on track. Now share it!
At Bentley, we put the goals document in a world-viewable Google doc and posted the link on our IT webpage, www.bentley.edu/it. The IT leadership has “write” capability in order to update the goals and the rest of the world has “read” capability. But we did not stop there. We also included a stoplight style status along with comments. Think of the ramifications of this…the instant a project goes yellow, which happens, the whole world can see that a team within IT has a project at risk and needs help.
At first, the IT folks did not like this but quickly came to realize that this is not punitive; but rather, a means to improve our collective chances of success. They could see that transparency had greater benefits than awkwardness.
But even more importantly, since IT has always had project-tracking reports, our community of faculty, students and other staff members could now see the top ten things that IT is doing for the community and they know, at any given time, where these items stand. For me, I just have to remember to share the link in every conversation I have, whether it be with the leadership team, in a board meeting or with faculty and students.
This worked out so well that we’ve created a similar document to track and share the more tactical requests from our student population. This is also posted on our IT website. Now our students can look anytime to see if what they have asked for is on our list (something that is easily corrected if it is not). They can see who is working on their item and when it will be completed.
The fact that an issue is on the website in a Google doc means that no unwieldy login process is required. Fewer obstacles means better transparency. Of course, higher education is known for its transparency and I realize that not every organization is going to be too enamored with airing the good and the not so good. In that case, the corporate intranet is a great alternative.
Perfect is the Enemy of Good
I know that, earlier, I said to start simple, but it is better to start by putting your IT strategy on your website. Same for the mission, vision and values that define your organization. Then the top ten goals would follow. It took me and a strong IT leadership team a year to have all of the pieces in place and out on the Bentley website. This includes partnering with colleagues in marketing to get the look and messaging right.
Does that mean that your goals might change as the strategy comes together? Sure. But transparency is so appreciated by the community that it is well worth going out of order. Just get something out there such as the goals that you already have, rather than waiting. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. With everything from mission, vision, values, strategy, goals and student activity all the way to the monthly maintenance schedule being on the website, little is left to wonder about with regard to what IT is working on, along with the how and the why.
But does it stop there? Certainly not. Now I have to talk about these things every day at every leadership meeting, town hall, budget review and watercooler conversation. I have to be the chief marketer for the IT department. That also means having a succinct and consistent message. You never know when you will be called upon to talk about what IT is doing, why you are doing it and when it will be done! So, move over Nick Burns. I’ll drive.