IT and User Departments Talk at Cross Purposes

Dr. Joachim Wolbersen
Dr. Joachim Wolbersen, head of consulting at Strasser & Strasser

The Gartner Group does not paint a rosy picture of IT in German companies: Of the 500 managers and managing directors surveyed, around two thirds regard information technology purely as a cost factor. The business driver role goes unrecognized. Dr. Joachim E. Wolbersen, head of consulting at management consultants Strasser & Strasser in Munich, spoke about the reasons for this poor image – and also about the opportunities for improving the standing of IT departments.

Why does IT have such a bad image at many companies?

Wolbersen: It goes back to the hype of the 1990s, which was also blamed on company CIOs. Back then, people assumed that information technology could cure all ills. The user departments often had expectations that were too high, and in some cases, the heads of IT contributed to this euphoria. This was especially true for technologies in the area of CRM, which – in theory – offered a great many opportunities, but which were not always practicable for individual companies or which didn’t really lead to improvements. Instead of examining new software critically in terms of its potential within their company, CIOs just went ahead and adopted the new technology. So the user departments were all the more disappointed if things didn’t turn out as desired. At the start of the new millennium, the New Economy bubble burst, and the reputation of IT suffered greatly as a result. After that, the CIOs took a completely opposite tack. They became overcautious and when new requirements emerged, they always stressed the problems instead of the opportunities. So it’s no wonder that company management teams and user departments now see their IT department as a bunch of defeatists. This image has become so ingrained that IT is regarded only as a cost factor and not as a business driver in many organizations.

How can that be changed?

Wolbersen: The main problem lies in poor communication within companies. The CIOs sometimes act in isolation from operational, day-to-day business. The needs of the user departments are not correctly perceived or are even considered a nuisance. On the other hand, the user departments do not value the CIO’s achievements accordingly. They express their desires, without taking feasibility into account. In principle, the two parties talk at cross purposes. Misunderstandings are inevitable. Current surveys reveal that 80% of all inner-company conflicts are the result of miscommunication. And here is no exception. IT professionals are used to hard facts and figures, while conflict management and empathy are pushed under the carpet. And in practice, it’s true that most projects fail due to inadequate “conflict communication.”

And due to poor project management.

Wolbersen: That’s right. Resources and budgets are too tightly calculated. What usually happens is that the technical project lead first calculates the cost, but the managing director cuts the budget because it’s too expensive. Then, when the project hits a rough patch because there are too few resources available, the IT department is given the blame. This can be avoided if the CIO and the rest of the company management agree and remain consistent. Here too, it’s a question of communication.

In other words…?

Wolbersen: Above all, the IT department, management, and users have to be aware of the project’s common goal – but also about the project’s limitations. And that’s not possible without making compromises. Projects are often crammed with superfluous requirements, and the CIO often isn’t resolute enough to say that certain things can’t be done at the current point in time. That’s why all employees who are affected by a hardware or software migration need to be sensitized as soon as possible to the opportunities – but also to the risks – of a project. They need to be clear about what will change, for whom, and why – and what the consequences will be. Only then can we be sure that the IT department and user departments will pull together. End users hate nothing more than having things sprung upon them.

On the other hand, today’s IT departments are ever more frequently being presented with faits accomplis: Through industry publications, the user departments are well-informed about IT innovations and often approach the CIO with a finished concept. He is then just seen as the person who carries out orders, not as an equal partner. If the CIO then discovers that the solution selected doesn’t fit the existing IT landscape at all, he’s again labeled a killjoy. That’s why the entire company needs to become aware of the fact that the IT department can also be a business partner, if given the chance.

And what should that look like in practice?

Wolbersen: An important part of it is person marketing, in other words, the CIO must represent his department clearly to other departments and make it known; he has to master public relations in the best sense of the phrase. And not just in specific projects, but also in day-to-day activities. For example, achieving system availability of 99.9% every day is a fantastic achievement. Many CIOs don’t communicate that, because they think it goes without saying. But end users don’t usually know what efforts go into such achievements – and as a result, they won’t be appreciative of them.

Another method is to participate in competitions. Winning an award or being rated highly in a benchmarking study initiated by independent analysts increases prestige within a company, too.

Can third parties – for example, external service providers – offer any help?

Wolbersen: Yes, of course – by supplying CIOs with knowledge that is directly or indirectly related to their area of responsibility. With this superior knowledge, CIOs can deal with other employees much more confidently, without being arrogant, of course. We mustn’t forget that today’s end users aren’t the clueless people they used to be and acquire much IT knowledge themselves through self-teaching. That’s why CIOs are always under pressure to constantly increase their knowledge, even of peripheral subjects. This is where an external partner can come in useful. Value-added resellers such as cormeta, who I have worked with now for a long time, organize series of workshops to bring together managers from an industry, discuss current challenges, and present new technological solutions. This is also important from a psychological point of view. The CIOs realize that they’re not alone with their problems, so they give each other strength, and return to their daily activities with an ability to see the bigger picture.

Of course, events don’t always have to be on such a large scale. The external partner could, for example, provide coaching for the CIO on the company premises or give him the opportunity to report on a successful project at an important conference. Here too, CIOs can tap potential for training, particularly in presentation techniques. Let’s not deceive ourselves. Many presentations nowadays are of an abysmal quality from a marketing point of view. The slides are incomprehensible, or the speaker simply reads them aloud, or listening to the presentation is about as exiting as watching paint dry. The external service provider can help the CIO hold a gripping presentation with materials that stand out from the gray mass of other slides. Something like that boosts the CIO’s reputation immensely, both externally and within the company and IT department. All in all, successful projects are a good opportunity to put the IT department in the spotlight – in a positive sense. If a third party says that the project wouldn’t have run so smoothly without the CIO, the other employees are suitably impressed.

How far should support go? After all, system resellers are really only interested in one thing, namely selling.

Wolbersen: Yes, of course, there’s no denying the economic interests. But as always, a good and intensive partnership is founded on clear principles and agreements, and on trust. The decisive factor is how far the cooperation should go. In a narrower sense, the system provider restricts itself to supplying the know-how for a successful project. But this may well result in long-term cooperation. The question is how greatly the strategic alignment of the company is influenced by this. And, of course, clear lines have to be drawn. It’s about providing support, not about deviously obtaining an illegitimate advantage. If a company only ever looks to the one solution provider as its possible implementation partner, the situation gets critical. That’s why the partnership can only ever play a supporting role, and leadership has to remain with the CIO. Both parties should sit down together and define rules and goals, so that a relationship of mutual trust is established. The clearer the dialogs and the positions, the less risk there is of conflicts.

Can you give us a practical example of successful IT marketing?

Wolbersen: I can remember a project in the public sector in the German federal state of Hesse.  The service subsidiary responsible for IT was having enormous problems with system availability, both with regard to the system landscape and in its dealings with its customers, that is, the authorities. Its requests simply weren’t being taken seriously. In addition, communication within the IT subsidiary wasn’t effective. Employees imported some patches or other without coordinating their activities, or made unauthorized changes that sent the entire system into a tailspin. The whole chaos was threatening to derail a project at the time. The turning point came when they got a consulting company on board. The consultants recommended setting up the IT systems using a clear, process-driven approach and aligning processes with ITIL standards. The end users were consistently involved in the defining of the processes. In fact, there was even a statewide exchange of experiences with other authorities.  The result was much greater system availability. Thanks to the impulse provided by the consultancy, an understanding of the processes became anchored and was strengthened in the company’s IT team. This redefining resulted in a considerable increase in prestige for the entire organization, because it was now able to present itself as a professional service provider. The customers saw how complex the processes were and began to appreciate the knowledge required for ensuring high availability. In this case, process implementation was an effective marketing instrument.