It's a given that the IT department and its initiatives are crucial to most enterprises, often having a huge effect on how an organisation's brand is perceived, yet the efforts of IT are often hidden from view. The only time users realize the IT is actually there whirring away in the background is when there is a failure of some sort. So why aren't more IT departments and CIOs offsetting this by blowing their own trumpet about their successes? After all, good external and internal publicity can be vital to an organisation's success, positioning it as one that uses technology intelligently and bolstering a multitude of stakeholder relationships.
Thankfully, many CIOs are realizing the value of good PR to the IT function. As Scott Crowder, CIO of BMC Software, says: 'In my experience, it's important for CIOs to communicate their achievements across a range of constituents, such as employees, customers and peers. In fact, I so strongly believe in this, I've made communicating success a major component of BMC's IT organisation with a dedicated "office of the CIO" reporting directly to me.'
Crowder's office of the CIO team's primary charter includes IT communications and metrics to ensure a consistent, transparent approach to the way the IT department delivers and communicates value to the business. He believes that IT teams do not sufficiently measure or celebrate successes and, as a result, are perceived as no more than keep-the-lights-on organisations. 'However, there are plenty of business value deliverables that deserve mention,' he says. 'We publish "Brag IT" notices each week, highlighting IT accomplishments, which are key in maintaining a steady pulse of value and goodwill generation, while improving employee motivation.'
For the last three years, BMC IT has also published and shared annual reports with all its IT employees and BMC business leaders. Originally intended for an internal audience, these reports have become a standard artifact to share with external customers when they express an interest in how BMC does IT. Crowder doesn't stop there either and also periodically sends the IT team on the road to meet with directly with customers.
Over at Nottingham City Council, IT director Mark Gannon has also taken steps to ensure the IT department presents its best side to the world with the appointment of a 'customer engagement officer. 'I guess their role is a PR function, but we don't call it that,' he explains. The council also has three business partners who essentially act as the bridge between the IT service and the departments. 'As well providing a voice for IT, they understand what the departments are planning and bring that back to IT. They establish more personal relationships with our customers, as opposed to the public relationship established by the customer engagement officer,' he explains.
Gannon agrees that IT departments are far too hidden from view most of the time. 'We know everything we're doing to roll out new features or improve the infrastructure, but customers outside of this world only tend to notice when things break or don't go well,' he says. 'We have a number of support services here like HR, legal and finance, but IT is the only one that impacts everybody when it goes wrong. So we wanted to reinforce and publicise the really good work we're doing when things don't go wrong!'
To achieve this, Gannon also implemented a quarterly newsletter that goes out to everybody in the organisation, updating them on key improvements, new features and products; and, most importantly, it's written in a conversational style in plain English so anybody can understand it.
Gannon readily admits there's a temptation for IT departments to be very insular and get involved in very detailed discussions about technical things that are of very little interest to anyone but them. 'I wanted to start describing things in terms of business and customer benefits, rather than just telling staff that we're moving to version seven of Oracle. That's all very well, but what does it really mean?'
As well regularly posting information on the council's intranet, Gannon also cites the importance of face-to-face contact between IT and stakeholders. 'We're based in a large central headquarters building, so we sometimes run campaigns in the atrium where we'll have drop-in sessions to engage with passing people. It's intentionally informal, as we know some people find IT a bit intimidating,' he adds.
Ironically, some believe that it's the IT departments themselves that are feeling intimidated. Joanna Cannon, account director at public relations consultants Spreckley Partners, believes historically IT departments have been almost fearful of marketing and, in particular, PR, because they perceive their day-to-day job is of little interest to anyone outside the office. 'The process-driven, technical mindset needed for a successful IT career often doesn't translate into identifying and creatively communicating some of the fantastic stuff that they do to shape lives outside of the server room,' she says.
This is where the CIO's role must change, Gannon believes. There is a big expectation on the future CIO to take on more CMO (chief marketing officer)-style responsibilities in selling the technology to employees, partners, clients and the public. 'Unfortunately, generating publicity for successful IT deployments in organisations can go against the nature of many hardened CIOs, as to talk about the success of something can just be tempting fate that something will go wrong just around the corner,' she says. We have all heard about the grand project that will solve all our problems, only to find that it fails to hit the mark, is late in delivery and smashes the budgets. This history within the IT sector has meant that many are cautious when talking about success.
As Cannon adds, often it is easier to say nothing and hope that the results will speak for themselves. But with technology now such an essential part of business success it cannot stay in the shadows and businesses need to use their successes in IT as part of their brand and business message. Perhaps now is the perfect time to start polishing that trumpet.
Top three tips for CIOs to keep in mind if they want to better communicate their team's value and get the recognition they deserve:
1. Talk benefits, not bytes. Beyond the IT team, the sad truth is that no one cares how things work. Bring your audience on board by talking about the ways in which a new system/initiatives will make their lives easier and less boring
2. Make it personal. It's important to remember when communicating about IT that most users of your solutions aren't really interested in how it's helping to boost efficiencies for colleagues they've never met. They want to know how it will impact them personally.
3. Illustrate your point. IT is invisible and intangible to those outside your team, so ensure you always have pictures or video to help tell the story to your audience. It's about bringing technology to life for even the most IT-illiterate audience.
Source: Annalise Coady, global Practice leader, WCG
Image source: BBC