It was after demands from regional directors posted at the four corners of the globe that the British Council underwent a major IT overhaul.

They wanted the organisation’s IT department to develop the necessary consultancy and influencing skills needed by its senior IT staff to meet change and deliver results. And the project has been deemed a great success, thanks also to the Berkshire Consultancy, which trained the technology experts to deal with people as well as operations.

The British Council – supported by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office – is the face of the UK abroad. Its charter is to develop educational opportunities and cultural relations between other countries and the UK. It operates in 109 countries with 220 offices and employs staff from a wide number of nationalities. The council sees itself as being driven by ‘a strong belief in internationalism, a commitment to professionalism and an enthusiasm for creativity’.

“As the British Council moves forward, we are having to deal with almost constant change, and our business managers were looking for IT support that helped them manage this,” says the council’s senior account manager for global IS, Lucy Pearson. The council’s internal IT team’s role had traditionally been a technical one, ie, providing IT capability to council employees worldwide. “We were seen as the backroom boys,” admits Pearson.

“There were a number of factors, ranging from the impact of the web on what we do to the fact our external customers started to expect a lot more from us. We knew we both had to improve what we did, but also let stakeholders see what we were contributing,” she recalls of the council’s need to redevelop its internal IT resource.

Global skills tracking

The British Council has launched a new online employee skills assessment system that will help boost the marketing and communications skills of all its employees. The idea is to use the software – called MyKnowledgeMap from a supplier called Capability Matrix – to help them and their managers better analyse their capabilities and manage skills by identifying gaps.

In 2004, to match evolving business requirements, senior business managers at the council decided their IT peers needed to change the way they worked with their internal clients, the regional directors (RDs), and other senior managers.

To begin with, the global IT function was restructured, with UK operational functions being outsourced to LogicaCMG. This allowed staff to focus on what they knew best, British Council business, with operations being managed by the partner. A new customer-facing IT service position was created, the account management role, to work with individual businesses and regions and communicate needs back to the provider. Global IT at the British Council now has over 150 staff based mainly in London and Manchester, linked to colleagues in ‘hubs’ in Delhi, Dubai, Warsaw, Singapore and Johannesburg.

“Our IT representatives need to be able to meet their needs while ensuring that the solutions they offer are consistent with our corporate IT strategy and policies. And this means they are often faced with conflicting priorities and difficult conversations,” she points out.

Though the council is not averse to bringing in technology to help its staff where necessary, see box, it was the use of consultants, not technology, to develop the necessary skills to manage those “difficult conversations” that made the real difference.

From techie to people person

How do you turn a ‘geek’ into a consultant? According to HR experts Berkshire Consultancy, a programme with such aims should look to:

Increase candidate’s confidence in building and managing relationships with internal customers, both face-to-face and remotely.
Provide tools for collecting and making sense of ‘soft’ as well as ‘hard’ data, and for designing and implementing change.
Enhance candidate’s listening skills and enable them to correctly identify the true source of problems by asking sufficient and appropriate questions.
Boost the technical person’s ability to work with business peers in order to arrive at mutually agreeable solutions.
Develop the candidate’s influencing skills (using their ‘personal’ as well as their ‘expert’ power).
Supply the tools to make sure all IT outcomes meet both the user’s agenda but are also firmly are in line with corporate priorities and agenda.
Foster the growth of a strong network within the newly-trained technical team to try and challenge each other beyond the (safe) workshop environment.

The idea for account managers was to act as an interface between the newly outsourced corporate IT service and their main internal clients (the RDs). But to do that they had to stop being technology delivery focused and start acting and thinking more like consultants – becoming business partners, able to understand the strategic priorities and wider needs of their internal clients and then frame a technology interpretation of that back to the outsourcing delivery partner.

“The account manager set of people is a mixed bag,” says Pearson. “You have some from a background that meant they’d be relatively open to soft skills, others much more operational in mindset. But we had to get all of them away from thinking their job was just dealing with servers and routers to dealing with people – their customers.”

This hinged on the newly minted account managers quickly building the right kind of relationship with the regional directors. Rather than leave that to chance, the council’s most senior IT leaders decided outside help was needed, engaging HR specialists the Berkshire Consultancy to help mould this whole new layer of business IT liaison executives. Or as Pearson puts it, “The team needed to become stronger in some of the interpersonal skills and behaviours which had previously been less crucial to success.”

The programme of work drawn up has been a structured, step-by-step transfer of techniques around personal and interpersonal skills – often, of course, singled out by sceptics as the Achilles heel of IT folk. Staff were trained in six locations globally in a set of new skills that would, hopefully, tell them why there was a mismatch between what central management was telling them to do and what their local business client (the RD) actually wanted – and what to do when the latter started getting ‘pushy’ about it.

“We wanted to give the managers a set of what we call influencing skills,” says principal consultant at the Berkshire Consultancy, Sandra Buckley, who led the work from the training firm’s point of view. “We wanted them to stop at each stage of their interaction with their clients, rather like consultants do, and ask, what am I trying to do here? How can I keep the relationship moving forward? They had to learn that a lot of this isn’t ‘push’ but ‘pull,’ about getting buy-in from the business at all stages.”

Final analysis

Has this attempt at giving IT people useful negotiating, personal and consultant-like skills been a success? The feedback from the British Council account managers who have taken the training and relevant follow-up suggests yes.

Managers report they really valued the chance to hone their questioning and listening skills to enable them to be more influential with clients, resulting in “better rapport, fuller and deeper understanding of their clients’ needs and therefore more appropriate and effective solutions”.

They also claim the consulting/multi-stage cycle has helped better structure their work with their internal clients, especially around the focus and outcomes of any discussion. Finally, account managers like the way they feel “more confident and proactive in approaching regional directors to tackle problems and plan out IT needs further in advance”.

The council has turned these elite techies into ‘consultants’ who can do the ‘soft skills’ people stuff too (see box). All of its global IS account managers have now taken the four-day long course and have had follow-up monitoring to see how they have been doing and practise the new skills.

For example, there were two structured follow-up sessions in 2006 and 2007 that really challenged the participants. This was done through a special dummy case study and a piece of play acting – literally involving actors – that simulated difficult but realistic situations. Pearson believes the team found the sessions “an incredibly useful way of refreshing and further developing their skills, as they received real-time feedback on how they applied the skills to a personalised, specific and real situation”.

Pearson says the project was a success with measurable benefits. “For many of the team the results have been quite dramatic,” she told CIO. “They are now able to advise on and influence strategic planning in their regions. Previously the team would have to ‘knock on doors’ to enter meetings – now their presence is both valued and sought.”

And in what has to be music to any IT professionals ears, the internal standing of IT has been boosted, away from the cliché of boxes and wires providers to true business partners. “In six months time I would estimate and no longer, they will be sitting at every table where significant business decisions get made in our organisation across the world.”

Should other organisations follow the cue of the British Council and look to formally train its IT staff in ways to better work with the business? Not surprisingly the consultancy that did the work here agrees: “IT professionals are able to use their technical knowledge to benefit the company at a much higher level and on a much greater scale if they can develop their interpersonal skills and use a more consultative approach,” says Buckley.

“They become truly embedded within the mainstream business rather than providing a discrete service from the periphery.”

Pearson says, “This isn’t rocket science – we took a bottom up approach and we have made this work. It may even work faster if it is done top down, as directed by the CEO.”