There's nothing new in the concept of IT marketing or selling itself to the business, and many readers of this column may groan as they remember past attempts at advertising the internal IT department's services to management and end users.

Many of those initiatives had little impact, or were downright unsuccessful. The reason why was that marketing IT was interpreted largely as showcasing the capabilities of the IT department.

Hardly ever was the outcome of such an initiative an on-going, constructive dialogue with the business.

If the business isn't willing to engage with IT, there's a limit to what can be achieved. But that shouldn't be seen as an excuse for not trying in the first place.

IT plans and investments are less likely to be approved in companies where the IT relationship with business isn't good, which in turn often results in negative consequences for the business as a whole.

It does matter how IT is perceived by its stakeholders: when the view of IT is positive, requests are more likely to be granted — or don't even have to be made in the first place.

Yet, we continue to see many IT departments making life more difficult for themselves because they simply don't see that selling is an integral part of the job profile of everybody in IT, whether it's the CIO, a developer, or a help desk employee.

That's not to say it means the same for everybody, but two-way communication is one aspect that's common to all of them.

It's nearly 20 years ago since I was first involved in an exercise mapping the links between business executives (top and middle management), and between these executives and IT.

Against a backdrop where the business was complaining about IT and IT feeling badly misunderstood, the result was as stark as it was illustrative: in the visual representation of these links, the CIO and his direct reports sat in splendid isolation, with the rest of the executives knitting the relationships among each other ever more tightly.

If this exercise was to be repeated today, and extended to include the entire workforce, the resulting picture would in many cases not look that much different — but this is the picture that needs to change, and it needs everybody in IT to contribute.

The more touch points between business and IT, and the more open the dialogue, the less adversarial the relationship is likely to be.

In many cases, small changes in behaviour can make a lot of difference. Those small changes can be achieved by fostering greater understanding, on both sides, and on all levels of the organisation. And that's where the selling' skills come into it.

 But this isn't about a hard sell, or about proving capability. It's about common courtesy, listening with empathy, and making it possible for the other party to understand your point of view.

To the CIO and their direct reports, this soft sell may translate into strategic account management techniques, consultative selling tactics, and focusing on the long view.

Understanding the relationships between key business executives is every bit as important in this context as understanding the business plan, and IT's contribution to it. To be fair, many CIOs today are very aware of this, and work hard to ensure that they and their management teams are acting accordingly.

But there is also evidence that the more dialogue-centric approach to the IT relationship with business hasn't permeated throughout the IT department.

A favourite bug bear of end users is IT being too restrictive, and support staff being uncommunicative or rude.

But how many IT departments are taking the trouble to start chipping away at these attitudes?

It's largely about working to improve mutual understanding. It's about the difference between feeling neglected by IT, and knowing that there's a delay in help desk response because everybody's busy dealing with a server failure, or a virus outbreak.

It's about the difference between a flat refusal, and being provided with a reasoned explanation, in plain English, why it may not be a good idea to have unencrypted sensitive data on a private laptop.

It's about understanding the cost and risk implications of doing certain things in a certain way.

Sales success is when the end user response is "sorry, I didn't think about it that way", as opposed to "I'm going to make a complaint".

It's even better when IT finds it has self-appointed champions among the end user community, who help sell the IT message to their colleagues. Having end users become advocates is every bit as valuable to IT as it is for the business to have customers turn into advocates.

Martha Bennett is VP head of strategy at Freeform Dynamics

Pic: PinkMoose cc2.0