Reading a recent blog about how IT departments struggle with their communication and collaboration with their end users, by Martin McKenna, I can’t avoid the conclusion that many IT departments still don’t get it. That they need to understand more about the business ecosystem they work in, and contribute to, and to adjust their mindsets and ways of working accordingly.

This blog looks at a number of things that need to be considered and addressed if we’re ever going to improve how we deliver corporate IT.

End users are human beings, not IT beings

IT’s response to the end user reluctance to contact the IT service desk when issues occur, is technological rather than relational. A common response is “They need a self-service portal.” No, they don’t. They need somebody who treats them as a human being, not an IT being. Somebody who demonstrates empathy, rather than technical expertise. Somebody who empowers the end users, rather than belittling them. Even after all these years, IT is still something that many users don’t understand, provided by people who they don’t trust.

It takes two to tango – but does IT’s business partner have two left feet?

The recent IT service management (ITSM) interest in business relationship management (BRM) is encouraging. Credit is due to the BRM Institute who have fostered this interest and provide excellent guidance on how the IT function can improve its relationship with its business partners and help them get more value out of their considerable investments in IT.

It takes two to tango, however, and it’s no good having a proficient IT dancing partner if the business partner has two left feet. Improving the business’ capabilities to deal with IT is one of my major interests, and I lean heavily on the body of knowledge that the non-profit ASL BiSL Foundation (where BiSL is the Business Information Services Library) has accumulated. (Full disclosure: they engage me as their ambassador to spread the word around the globe, so I’m undoubtedly biased, but I sincerely believe that this is a neglected area.)

Just consider the following concerns that business people have:

  • How much should we be investing in IT as opposed to other important resources?
  • What kind of investments should we be making?
  • How do we delegate the work to the IT department and make sure that it gets done?
  • How do we ensure that end users are using the information and technology well and actually realizing the intended value?
  • How do we protect our valuable information and information systems from misuse?
  • How do we as business managers ensure that we’re managing our information and information systems in accordance with their value as business assets?

Governance of information and technology from a business perspective

Let’s think about the last point, about good governance. Who is tasked with alleviating all of the other concerns mentioned above? Not the IT department – it’s a business responsibility. The IT department can help with advice, of course, but their primary focus is IT service delivery.

Either formally or informally, the business fulfils roles such as system owner, product owner, information manager, and key/super/power user. But how well are these roles executed? BiSL comprises a set of practices that can be used as a checklist to establish how well information and technology are being managed from a business perspective, and to improve them where necessary.

“IT buddy”?

In his blog, Martin mentioned a concept similar to doctor’s rounds or clinics, where an “IT buddy” visits departments on a regular basis to becomes a trusted advisor and “voice” for that department. He also talked about the power user, usually a colleague who is often asked for help and, as part of the business unit, they therefore understand the business context better than the IT colleague and that they too could become an IT buddy.

I like this principle (and have previously used the term “Super Duper User” for this role). To take the IT buddy concept even further I would suggest that we ask that person to proactively keep an eye on how their colleagues are using the systems and advise accordingly.

Effective business-IT behavior

The collaboration between line-of-business people and IT people is a fascinating topic and I’ve conducted workshops in about ten countries in which participants explore and identify effective collaborative behavior. The main findings are that the business people should:

  • Focus on outcomes, not tell IT which solutions they want
  • Articulate strategy and needs clearly
  • Accept risks, set priorities, and take decisions
  • Understand IT’s limitations
  • Own organizational change
  • Give feedback about the use of systems

And that IT people should:

  • Be accessible, empathetic, communicative, flexible, and quick
  • Understand the business, and IT’s impact on it
  • Talk benefits, costs, and risks without mentioning anything to do with IT
  • Discuss consequences of options and choices
  • Suggest innovations proactively instead of waiting for the business to ask for something
  • Say “Yes, if” not “No”

Equally important, the participants feel that the enterprise should foster a culture in which business and IT share a joint vision and are part of the same story, have an ongoing dialogue, have mature conversations, strike balances, and enjoy working together.

Embracing “shadow IT”

Increasingly, tooling is no longer dictated by the IT function. There’s a power shift towards the end users. They have their own preference for communication – for instance Twitter or Facebook. They have their own preference for devices and apps. Calling this “shadow IT” is derogatory and delusional. It’s just as much part of their lives as the language that they speak. If your end users speak French, it’s no good insisting that they speak Spanish. Instead learn French. Learn Twitter. Learn Android. If you don’t, they’ll walk away – particularly external users/customers.

Attitudinal, behavioral, and cultural challenges

So where does this leave us? With attitudinal, behavioral, and cultural challenges. I’d recommend spending some time thinking about the end users’ experience when dealing with IT, building better relationships, and helping your business partners to become better dancing partners.

Guidance is readily available (e.g. BRMBOKTM and BiSL®), as are workshops and business simulations that explore, identify, and improve communication and collaboration. But don’t approach this as a project in the IT department to decide what to do for the end users – do it with them. This in itself is a major step in the right direction.

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Mark Smalley is an IT Management Consultant at Smalley.IT, specializing in application management and business information management. He is affiliated with the non-profit ASL BiSL Foundation, APMG International, GamingWorks, and AllThingsITSM. Mark is an inaugural member of the industry initiatives SMCongress and Taking Service Forward. Also know as The IT Paradigmologist, Mark has spoken to thousands of IT professionals at more than 100 events on 4 continents.

  • Wings2i

    Very interesting pointers of connecting IT & business partners.. Good read!