Good Communication: The Other Social Network for Successful IT Organizations
© 2009 Lisa Trubitt and Jeff Overholtzer. The text of this article is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0/).
EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 44, no. 6 (November/December 2009): 90-101
Social networks of the electronic variety have become thoroughly embedded in contemporary culture. People have woven these networks into their daily routines, using Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, online gaming environments, and other tools to build and maintain complex webs of professional and personal relationships.
CIOs likewise have recognized the importance of building social networks, using not only these electronic tools but also the old-fashioned methods of face-to-face communication and relationship-building. Today, establishing these networks is more important than ever in order to manage changes in technology and expectations in the current economy. Sharing information and developing a common understanding with campus partners have become keys for success in IT organizations.
How did this happen? Just over a decade ago, one of the benefits of going to college was gaining access to IT resources; yet today's students bring a complex IT environment with them to campus, and their expectations about connectivity and service run very high. Moreover, the dependencies on information technologies are hardly limited to students; nearly every facet of campus life relies on some form of technology. Faculty incorporate increasingly sophisticated technologies into the classroom to supplement lectures, complete course assignments, and measure learning outcomes. Administrators are replacing paper files and legacy systems with enterprise applications and automated workflow. The IT infrastructure has become as important to the campus as any other utility. If forced to choose, some on campus might even prioritize e-mail or network access over lights and heat.
Such dependencies have increased the pressure on IT organizations, a situation further exacerbated by the current economic downturn. Between shortfalls in staff and freezes in hiring, there is a renewed emphasis on technology solutions, including the need for IT organizations to demonstrate greater efficiencies and help with "green" solutions campus-wide. Interestingly, the increase in expectations is marked by a corresponding decrease in tolerance for limited parameters of technical support. Despite the fact that IT organizations are suffering from the same cuts and shortfalls as other divisions, institutions continue to hold out hope for technology fixes. Further, when the IT organization cannot provide a new service or application, there is no shortage of vendors ready to sell a product claiming to provide the perfect solution. From a CIO's perspective, one of the few things that changes faster than technology itself is the volume of requests and expectations for campus IT support.
The IT Communication Landscape
What does this mean for campus IT organizations? To successfully align the goals and objectives of the IT organization with those of the institution, IT leaders are devoting more time to understanding the work of other divisions and to developing stronger relationships with key players in divisions across the campus. Attention to these relationships is time well invested, since it helps to recast the IT organization from the role of commodity services provider to that of strategic partner. Building any meaningful partnership hinges on a solid foundation of trust and understanding, and relationships with campus constituents are no different. By helping others to leverage technology to their advantage, IT organizations can enable campus divisions to be more successful.
Being a good partner depends, in part, on technical knowledge and expertise. But there is another aspect, one that is conceptually simple but potentially complicated in its execution: communication. Good communication is one of the most important elements of the human network infrastructure, yet until recently, it has often been overlooked as a central ingredient in successful IT organizations. In a 2008 essay, Philip Goldstein named some of the emerging roles open to IT professionals, including orchestrator, process architect, and proactive strategist.1 Communication is arguably at the heart of all of these roles, as is active listening. Yet sharing complex technical information in a manner that is easy for laypeople to understand can prove to be very challenging for IT professionals. When IT leaders emphasize the importance of soft skills, good communication and active listening are more likely to become ingrained in the organizational culture.
A New Approach
The communications makeover of IT organizations begins with understanding the higher education landscape and moving inward in concentric circles. IT leaders have long been knowledgeable about higher education, including government policy, finances, and the competitive outlook; now, the importance of broad generalist knowledge is filtering lower in the organization. Moving inward, IT leaders and staff must also understand their own institutions. A thorough reading of the campus strategic plan is a good place to begin; institutional blogs, websites, student newspapers, and HR and other employee newsletters are also useful sources of information and are helpful in identifying trends, understanding issues, and discerning the campus culture.
Another good way to learn about the campus and start building relationships is through participation in presidential task forces and other kinds of institution-wide committees. These activities offer an opportunity to meet and interact with a broad cross-section of campus leaders and to better understand important issues facing the institution. IT professionals who participate in these activities can help provide institutional leadership while representing the IT organization and demonstrating organizational commitment to the greater campus community. Further, as community stakeholders, IT professionals need not be confined solely to IT matters. Broad issues — ranging from work-life balance and green initiatives to women's issues or reaccreditation efforts — are also matters of concern to IT staff. College and university presidents, provosts, deans, department heads, and others can do their part in encouraging IT participation in these conversations, acknowledging that their IT colleagues are motivated not only by crafting technical solutions but also by performing work to further teaching and learning and to enrich the capabilities of the institution.
Engagement in these kinds of conversations is less about injecting the IT perspective into campus discussions than it is about building relationships, at all levels, across campus to better understand the issues facing the institution. By participating in broader discussions, both formal and informal, the IT organization signals its interest in the core issues of the institution and can begin forming the relationships that may become the cornerstones of future partnerships.
It is not enough for IT organizations to communicate effectively to their clients, however; good communication is a two-way street. Feedback from clients can be obtained in many ways: surveys, suggestion boxes, town hall-style meetings, and routine interaction and/or feedback loops with stakeholders. Many campuses have established advisory boards of students, faculty, and staff to ensure they have regular paths of communication with their constituents. This provides the organization with a wealth of information about how customers are using services, which services need improvement, and which services need to be introduced or phased out.
Formal mechanisms are an excellent way for IT organizations to facilitate dialogues and engage with their customers. Follow-through and results are an important part of making this approach successful. Asking customers how they think the IT organization is doing generates goodwill and enhances a service-oriented reputation, but it is critical to follow through by making improvements based on that information.
Many IT organizations are making overtures to their campus communities, gaining valuable feedback about their services and then acting on that input. The following examples represent some of the creative ways that IT organizations are facilitating these discussions with various campus partners:
- Information Technology Services at the University at Albany, State University of New York, has developed a variety of stakeholder groups to provide the IT organization with ongoing feedback from various constituencies, including faculty and student advisory boards, a policy review board, and an information security council. These forums provide the IT organization with ample opportunities to learn how customers are utilizing IT services, to determine how well those services are working, and to solicit input on a variety of IT issues. Participants are invited to put items on the agenda, thereby raising issues and addressing concerns of their choosing. This open forum helps the IT organization better understand how customers value its services, find out what new technologies are the most interesting to them, and gain valuable input for policy and strategic planning and evaluation purposes.
- Information Technology at Rice University initiated a "Conversations with IT" series aimed at learning clients' specific needs and concerns. As part of this dialogue, IT staff hosted meetings in each of the primary academic buildings, with a broad call for participation. These open sessions were focused on listening to customers' concerns rather than on following an IT-based agenda. The discussions yielded solutions on a variety of issues, from gaining reliable access to plotter-printers to obtaining a site license for SPSS. Furthermore, relationships with department and faculty leaders developed, leading to increased support for IT initiatives.
- Various strategies are employed to discern the IT-related needs of students at Washington and Lee University. Leaders from Information Technology Services (ITS) meet periodically with the student Executive Committee, and students also serve on the Information Technology Advisory Committee. ITS conducted a detailed survey of the student body in the spring of 2009, yielding a 30 percent response rate and nearly forty pages of comments. ITS summarized the survey results in posters and web pages and will report back to students on progress toward the needs expressed by the survey respondents.
In all of these dialogues, IT professionals must first take great care to listen. Second, they should not try to solve problems too quickly, following the old admonition of "seek first to understand, then to be understood." They should ask questions about the clients' needs and requirements and workflows and about the clients' pressures and challenges, and again, they should be prepared to fully understand those before jumping to potential solutions. Although this can be quite a challenge, those who master these skills will learn a great deal about how the IT organization supports and interacts with the campus community. This information can be invaluable in making improvements to IT services and overall planning efforts. Follow-through is critical: without resolution of some of the customers' concerns, IT organizations stand to lose credibility and minimize campus-wide participation in the future.
The key for these and other discussions is to proceed in a way that is culturally appropriate for the institution and to leverage existing committees and governance structures when possible. The attitude of the IT organization in these discussions is also critical. Focusing on the clients' needs and displaying patience in fully understanding the context and the nature of the problems can help open both hearts and purse strings. As Steve Bragg, the former vice president for finance and planning at Illinois State University, has noted, the key to successful funding proposals from the IT organization is not a description of all the technical bells and whistles but, instead, is a simple, clear explanation of how the funding proposals will meet the goals and objectives of the institution.2
By following these communication principles and strategies, IT organizations can lay the groundwork for effective solutions. For instance, during the summer of 2009, Information Technology Services at Washington and Lee University identified a pattern of requests, from various units, for digital signs. At the same time, network-based solutions for digital signs had proliferated, presenting the opportunity of offering a unified solution to meet the needs of the entire university. The IT organization initiated discussions between stakeholders — including Dining Services, the University Store, Student Affairs, and other offices — concerning a common solution. By pursuing a unified solution, the IT organization created an opportunity for simplified and scalable support to satisfy a broad campus need.
Yet defining a project and beginning work does not end the necessity for effective communication. Project management involves its own set of communication requirements, especially as IT organizations take on increasingly complex projects involving a variety of stakeholders and legal requirements. Communication begins with clarity in defining the project and its outcomes. The project lead must be diligent to communicate continuously with stakeholders, especially when challenges arise such as budgetary constraints, unexpected technical difficulties, and/or changing needs of clients. IT organizations that become enamored with certain technical solutions or that proceed in a heads-down manner to accomplish the project objectives may expend considerable effort but still fail to satisfy the client in the end. IT must be clear with clients about its capabilities and its limitations, constantly making good-faith attempts to help connect clients with solutions. The success of a project is determined not by the IT organization's completion of its checklist but, rather, by the client's perception that success, as measured against its needs and expectations, has been achieved.
The business community and resources such as the Project Management Institute (http://www.pmi.org) are a good source of information about project management and related issues of communication. Workshops and panels on project management have become increasingly common at IT conferences, helping to focus attention on communication, negotiation, organization, and other skills needed to manage the new and complex projects that IT organizations are increasingly called on to manage.
The Emerging IT Communications Field
For many CIOs and IT vice presidents, changing the way that IT organizations communicate with the rest of the campus community is reflected in changes and/or additions in staff. A growing number of institutions have hired staff to help spearhead IT communication efforts. Job responsibilities may include anything from writing content for newsletters and the web to developing templates for various communications strategies and managing successful relationships with other campus divisions. Some institutions have the resources to implement an IT communications team, whereas other institutions may have only one person, perhaps not even a full-time position, who manages various aspects of IT communication.
Where do these IT communications professionals come from? In many cases, the role has been assumed by technical staff who have a knack for conveying information in ways that are easy for non-tech-savvy customers to understand. In other cases, CIOs and IT vice presidents have specifically sought out individuals who do not have a technical background. In all cases, one of the primary responsibilities of these IT communications professionals is to serve as "translators" to the campus community, ensuring that technology information is conveyed in ways that are clear, concise, and easy to understand.
Over the past five years, these communications professionals have become an increasingly visible presence across IT organizations. Yet as vital as their role is, this is a new field that is still gaining recognition — in a challenging economy. As communication becomes more important to successful IT strategies and relationships, IT communications professionals find themselves needing to do more with less, just like everyone else in the IT organization. It isn't hard to imagine that with additional resources, more CIOs and IT vice presidents would seek to invest in building the soft skills of the IT workforce.
The specific duties of IT communications professionals vary and can include marketing, relationship management, and project consulting/management. Some IT organizations define the role of these IT professionals as pertaining strictly to campus communications in the form of e-mail, print, and web delivery. In other IT organizations, the communication role may entail broader responsibilities, such as managing relationships with other campus divisions or providing technical advice. And when campus divisions want to employ vendor-hosted solutions, some IT organizations will choose consulting as part of an overall strategic planning process because they believe this is the way they can be most helpful to their customers; in such cases, IT communications professionals can play a very important consulting role to ensure that compatibility, security, and functionality are fully addressed and properly managed by the vendor.
The shape of these roles depends on a variety of factors, including the size and culture of an institution and the backgrounds of IT staff. At a smaller institution, an IT staff member with responsibility for the departmental website could also be charged with broader communication responsibilities as well as policy formulation and management of projects requiring interdepartmental collaboration. At a larger institution, a staff member's time could be devoted exclusively to crafting messages, formulating communication strategies, and working with advisory groups and other key constituencies. Position titles of professionals involved in IT communications suggest the wide variety of possible approaches:
- Lead IT Consultant
- Director of Communications and Marketing
- Communications Coordinator for Information Technical Services
- IT Customer Relations Manager
- Director of Strategic Communications and Planning
- Assistant CIO for Policy and Communications
The difficulties associated with good communication cannot be overstated. In many respects, every IT professional represents the face of the IT organization to the rest of the campus. In a perfect world, all IT staff would excel in all communication skills. This suggests the need to enhance interpersonal and communication skills across the entire organization, but especially among IT leaders, managers, and staff who interact with the public. Customer relations training can help accomplish this purpose, as can an organizational culture that values soft skills. Knowing that a single bad impression can torpedo the best strategy, many IT leaders are promoting positive communication as the responsibility of every IT professional. As a result, IT staff must become skilled at responses that are friendly and open and that achieve a balance between the two extreme reactions to requests: (1) "No, we're too busy, and it can't be done"; or (2) "Yes, whatever you say." (The latter, sanguine response typically backfires when the client isn't realistically informed of IT limitations and capabilities.)
Learning how to speak in "plain English" may be one of the biggest hurdles that IT professionals must overcome. The mystique associated with acronyms, jargon, and technical details can set technical staff apart as a distinctive group of professionals, but it can also alienate others. As information technology has become ubiquitous, people have acquired the ability to manage their own IT experience. As a result, IT consumers now have higher expectations about understanding the technology and less patience with terminology and explanations that they don't understand. For IT professionals at colleges and universities, this means that others on campus must be able to understand, without too much difficulty, the information being shared.
The need to communicate well is not limited to helping customers resolve individual problems; it is also a critical factor in the success of engaging the campus community to help leverage the value of information technology to benefit the institution. IT leaders face an increasing number of service issues that could dramatically affect the campus. Institutions that are moving to virtualized environments, considering cloud computing, and evaluating new collaboration strategies will make better decisions if they have ongoing input from the campus community. At the same time, these issues need to be framed in ways that all constituents will understand. In such cases, it is not technical details but, rather, explanations of the big picture, of the pros and cons from a customer's perspective, and of changes in service delivery that will likely inspire participation across the campus.
For some people, translating technical details into simple prose is easy and natural; for others, it is quite difficult. But IT professionals need to realize that a strategy for interacting successfully across the campus community depends, in part, on the organization's ability to converse in terms that can be understood by all. For example, a presentation to the college or university board of trustees about the need to fund network infrastructure should incorporate words and images that are familiar and relevant to that audience. Photographs of students using laptops in a variety of settings and survey data demonstrating that wireless connectivity is a paramount concern for students will be far more effective than detailed descriptions of routers and wireless access points. An illustration of cloud computing could include images of music and art collections and other teaching tools available to students via externally hosted services. The role of the network in delivering these vital services could also be represented pictorially. Comparative data from peer institutions on institutional funding of the network could be presented in tables and graphs. A presentation targeted to the interests and backgrounds of the audience can yield the desired result — in this case impressing on trustees the importance of funding network infrastructure to support vital communication, teaching, research, and learning needs.
The IT organization must learn to speak in the language of the various constituencies it serves. For the admissions office, this means talking about yield rates; for the development office, about annual funds, capital campaigns, and planned giving; for academic departments, about tenure and promotion, service learning, and general education requirements. Anyone who has traveled to a foreign country knows that attempting to use the local language can make a considerable difference in creating a receptive attitude. Even if mastery of the language is imperfect, listeners usually appreciate the effort.
Finally, although good relationships will thrive in an environment of shared understanding and common language, IT professionals must exercise caution in how they frame discussions. It can be very tempting to jump quickly to technical solutions, for both technical and nontechnical staff. But the proliferation of alternative, vendor solutions provides ample opportunity for other campus divisions to engage in "one-stop shopping" for products that claim to get the job done without much support from the campus IT organization. As IT professionals know all too well, this is rarely the case, especially when these solutions rely on the use of protected information about members of the campus community. When IT organizations have good relationships with other campus divisions and frame discussions appropriately, they are more likely to be invited to the table earlier, where they can fully explore all available solutions.
Although electronic tools for social networking have introduced a new dimension to communication, certain fundamentals remain. The central tenets of social networking are sharing information and building and sustaining relationships. The tools or mechanisms for facilitating communication may change, but the underlying need for social interaction remains a powerful aspect of human nature.
These elements of social networking lend themselves nicely to the IT higher education context. Good communication is the key ingredient in building relationships with constituencies across the campus. Those relationships, in turn, are essential to creating new roles for IT organizations as they transform themselves from managers of well-defined commodity services to facilitators of complex solutions that require a deep understanding of clients' needs and, frequently, integration of campus and third-party resources and tools. Regardless of the technical challenges faced by IT professionals, the ongoing requirement to partner with the campus community will continue to require good communication.
- Philip Goldstein, "The Tower, the Cloud, and the IT Leader and Workforce," in Richard N. Katz, ed., The Tower and the Cloud (Boulder, Colo.: EDUCAUSE, 2008), <http://www.educause.edu/thetowerandthecloud/PUB7202x>.
- Steve Bragg, Scott Carlson, and Warren Arbogast, "What Does the CFO Know about Technology Anyway?" Chronicle of Higher Education Audio: Tech Therapy (podcast), episode 44, March 19, 2009.