“It’s the most stressful job in the world,” said one senior IT manager recently. The need to face up to the commercial pressures of the ’90s and learn how to treat end users as “customers” has imposed considerable pressure on most corporate IT departments, reinforcing the traditional view that when it comes to adaptability and change, few groups of people can demonstrate greater resistance to the introduction of new working practices. Although most IT departments now operate as cost centres in their own right, colleagues elsewhere persist in seeing them as an obstacle to improved services rather than a facilitator.
“The situation is best illustrated by a triangle, with the board at the top, end users on one side and the specialists in the IT department on the other,” says Mike Ball, associate director at Hoskyns and head of its IT strategy practice. “However you approach it, there are tensions between each corner. The users don’t trust the specialists. The specialists often find that their manager is as much in the dark as they are about forthcoming changes, and at the same time that manager is having to meet a barrage of demands from the end users.”
At the heart of the problem, it seems, lies basic communication between the various agencies. Everyone expects the IT department to be the harbinger of change. Yet, by its very nature, it is often staffed by technicians who entered the profession because of their interest in technology. Introducing them to the communications skills which they require as members of a fully integrated corporate business unit is not easy for an IT manager whose resources are already stretched.
“Things are getting better,” says Ball, “but I’m still surprised at how often we get called in because of basic communications problems. IT departments have to understand the business as a whole and tie their own functions into business drivers. Yes, IT dinosaurs do exist and the only way to bring them into the new world is to try and implant some kind of business perspective into their understanding. If they really can’t adapt, you end up having to work around them.”
Keith Bedingham, joint managing director of change management specialist Verax, agrees that one of the main obstacles to change in the IT department is a fundamental difference in understanding. “IT people deal in a language and with technology which are not easily understood by others. That in itself creates certain communications problems,” he says. “On the other hand, the notion of non-IT people is that if you want a particular solution, you can talk to the IT department until you are blue in the face and end up with either with something completely different or nothing at all.”
The big mistake many companies make when trying to introduce change to the IT department is to assume a commitment to change exists without providing sufficient explanation. A smooth transition can only be achieved if everyone understands the overall goals. “I can think of one organisation which went for Business Process Reengineering in a big way, rehashing its product development and manufacturing processes and bringing in top-level consultants,” recalls Bedingham. “Clearly, the IT group had a major role to play in creating the new information management and manufacturing processes.
But despite the establishment of research teams and project leaders, senior management pushed ahead without getting the commitment of everybody in the team to the objectives. As a result, individuals were more concerned about defending their own corners. It nearly sabotaged the whole thing.”
Bedingham says that IT staff must be encouraged to see themselves as part of the internal customer supply chain. They have to learn how to meet their users half way, ask them what their problems are and then ask themselves what they could contribute to a likely solution. By stepping outside their traditional viewpoint in this way, IT staff can be helped to change their attitudes. Bedingham suggests that the idea of the intransigent, belligerent IT department is often a result of the imposition of change rather than a mission to be a spanner in the works.
“Individual resistance to change comes when people either can’t see the need for it in the first place, or are worried that they won’t be able to cope with it or that there won’t be a role for them in the new model.
The myth of the resistant IT department arises because IT people don’t always understand or deliver the solutions their users want. They give the impression of not listening but it’s more a matter of communication and understanding.”
Perhaps we should also be less ready to consign those IT dinosaurs to the scrapheap. Cynics might say that long-standing stalwarts will not be able to bend with the new corporate attitudes which say IT is a service and users are customers. But Sue Kilford, account manager at consultancy Pink Elephant, which offers core skills training to promote the commercial awareness of IT personnel, says: “Those IT staff who are entrenched in their old attitudes have often been looking after their users perfectly well. Now, they have to be introduced to the bigger picture. Traditional methods shouldn’t necessarily be thrown out of the window. Often, there is no right or wrong when it comes to managing change. It’s more a question of what needs to happen to take the company forward.”
Nevertheless, that process requires the establishment of some home truths which the modern IT department has no choice but to take on board. IT staff have to face up to commercial realities. They can’t fob off their users with technicalities or get away with paying lip service to market forces while carrying on with their existing attitudes. If they can’t meet their customers’ requirements, those customers will simply go elsewhere for a better service and the very survival of the IT department will fall into doubt. There simply isn’t a choice any more.
According to Kilford, it is perfectly possible to achieve these changes without causing consternation and resentment. “Involving the end user or customer in the change process is a very powerful way of introducing new attitudes to the IT department,” she says. “Users expect their systems to be reliable, economical, fast and easy to use. Consultation is essential in establishing those expectations and helping IT staff to clarify them in their own minds, understanding that excuses are not acceptable to today’s internal customer.”
But what can senior management do to facilitate change? Tales of the resentment caused by imposed change and lack of consultation are by no means limited to the IT department, but it does seem to bear the brunt.
Should IT managers spend more on training their staff in new attitudes and practices? Hoskyns’ Ball says that the overall picture is still mixed.
“Certainly we’ve worked with organisations who see the need to make this kind of investment,” he says. “You could take the view that you can never spend enough on education.”
Kilford says that investment in developing commercial skills is a key way of helping IT departments to differentiate in terms of the services they offer their customers. “IT staff still fail to market themselves successfully,” she says. “They have to take responsibility for the fact that their customers know what’s on offer. It’s critical. There’s still widespread ignorance among users of what IT services can offer them.
Too much time is spent on worrying about technology itself and not enough on managing people.” Getting the balance right won’t simply create a more commercially aware IT department. It could also help to reduce the stress levels of harassed IT managers all over the land.
Facing up to commercial challenges
The IT Services Division of British Gas Transco has been through many of the changes referred to in this article, following the merger of 12 regional data centres into two sites at Hinckley and Killingworth.
Dick Potter, service delivery manager at the Hinckley site, says: “We had seconded staff from the 12 pre-existing centres. Suddenly we had 150 people who had never worked together before, operating in a much more commercially sensitive environment. We wanted to build a real team and to educate them to meet the challenge of a marketplace that is changing and where outsourcing could become a reality.” British Gas Transco chose to implement Pink Elephant’s Core Skills training programme to facilitate the project.
Potter says: “Most technical and operational personnel never meet a customer and are removed from the real business issues management face every day.
The case study we helped create was carefully designed to relate to their work in operations.” IT staff were presented with customer expectations from a senior business management perspective, including costs, service levels and penalty clauses. They were encouraged to work in teams to understand business requirements and use their developing communications skills. “For many staff, this was the first time they had encountered a customer who tells them: ‘If you don’t deliver what I want, at the cost I want and when I want it, I will go elsewhere’,” says Potter. “It has shown them that their part in the operational side of the business has a direct impact on the business success of the group.” – Piers Ford is a freelance writer.