The importance of mutual understanding: A faster track to business alignment and satisfied users

Andrew Buss, originally published on Computer Weekly


Published/updated: August 2011

Here at Freeform Dynamics weíre renowned for advocating a service centric approach to IT. The benefits of tend to come back to IT in numerous ways - users are happier, the business functions more effectively and in return IT tends to receive both more funding and freedom to develop.

One of the foundations upon which good service management is built involves getting IT and the business to work well together as a team. When we look back through the research that weíve done, one of the biggest contributors to this is setting clear, achievable and measurable goals that are regularly reviewed and assessed.

Performance management is something that is routinely practiced for staff in many organisations. Most of us are familiar with being set objectives or targets for our jobs. Come review time we are assessed on results of what we have accomplished. If weíve achieved the goals or exceeded them, we can expect rewards to follow - a pay rise, bonus or promotion being the obvious examples.

On the other hand, if weíve not quite got the results expected then we may be stuck at the same level or even have to accept a demotion together with training and an expectation to turn things around.

When it comes to managing IT though, our research demonstrates that few companies are doing this in a systematic manner. This is important, because when we analyse the data, what emerges is that the companies that are service centric and have the most satisfied users are also the ones that practice regular IT assessments and review.

Where this review process does not tend to happen, the net result is generally a sense of frustration where things tend to head in the right direction but where there is also friction between IT and the business due to differences in expectation and interpretation.

In more extreme cases we see that IT may operate as a "black box" that is impenetrable to the business. The outcome is usually mutual suspicion - if not downright hostility. The business may feel that it is paying a lot of money for a service thatís not really providing what it needs, while from ITís perspective it feels undervalued as no-one truly recognises or values the services it provides.

This disconnect can make constructive engagement difficult if not impossible. Turning things around can be a challenge, but if this is used as an excuse for not trying then things will never change. Getting IT and the business more closely aligned comes from a mutual understanding of objectives, leading to the setting of clear goals and then assessing performance based on these goals.

To achieve this two-way dialogue involves selling IT to the business, and for this marketing, communication and listening skills are an essential part of the armoury for senior IT managers. Thereís nothing really new in this concept, and you may think itís all been tried before and not really worked out all that well in the past. This was largely down to IT selling itself and its technological prowess, rather than how IT can meet business needs.

In order to really engage with the business and form a mutual understanding, itís much more about selling the "soft" capabilities of IT, and this is where the listening part really comes into play - helping IT to understand the business and its politics and in turn enabling the business to understand where IT is coming from. Small changes in approach that come out of this can really help to make a massive difference in how IT works with, and is perceived by, the business.

This approach is important across all levels of the business. Gaining the support of the highest levels of management is critical of course, as this determines the overall direction of and investment in IT. Many CIOís or senior IT managers are well aware of the need to understand and support the business at this level and put a lot of effort into understanding the networks and links between executives as well as taking the long view of the business strategy and how IT can contribute to it.

While a lot of effort may be expended in understanding the upper layers of the business in order to gain alignment, itís important not to forget the roots and branches of the company. Our research shows that they are often frustrated and unhappy with the service provided by IT which can hold back even the most aligned of IT organisation if they get it wrong. Getting end-users on board is vitally important for the long-term health and success of IT within the business - and this is where the communications element comes into play.

We commonly hear complaints that "IT just says no" or is unresponsive to requests. This type of restrictive approach is not conducive to positive relations, yet few IT departments make the effort to communicate reasonably with users. It makes a world of difference to be told that remote access to an application may not be possible due to a lack of encryption capabilities than being flatly refused.

In the same vein users of an application that may be unresponsive because of a storage issue will appreciate a proactive update rather than finding out themselves and trying to phone a help desk to log the issue - and which is likely to be unresponsive as it is trying to deal with many irate users calling in to report the issues while IT simultaneously tries to fix the problem.

Thinking in terms of customer service should be at the heart of every IT department, yet itís abundantly clear that this does not come naturally to many who work within IT. Few companies treat this as a core part of the IT practitionerís skill set. Perhaps itís time to add it to the training schedule and put it on an equal footing with the technical accreditations that IT staff are so keen to achieve.

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