What did you want to be when you grew up? I wanted to be an ambulance tech and the kids I hung out with wanted to be actresses or explorers or veterinarians. Maybe there was one who wanted to build computer games, but IT didn’t really factor into our career plans. I didn’t even know that ‘IT Manager’ was a possible job.
Now, it’s what I spend my days doing.
It’s not just children who don’t know what an IT manager does. If you have that as your job title as an adult, many of your colleagues won’t understand or appreciate what the role involves.
As IT managers, that gives us a constant communication problem. How do we frame what we do in words that make sense to the Head of Marketing? How do we explain to our peers the value of IT and the critical roles that we play?
Traditionally, IT has been a dark art, but with the advent of the cloud and increasing focus on business solutions rather than IT solutions, we have to get better at talking about what we do.
Watch your language
One of the rookie mistakes about communicating with colleagues about our role in the company is to make the distinction between IT and ‘the business’.
I’ve often heard IT people from all disciplines say things like: “In IT, we support the business.” Well, IT is one department in the business. It’s not a separate entity hanging outside the rest of the company, even if you outsource IT to a third party. IT and ‘the business’ are the same thing: without ‘the business’ there is no need for an IT department, and the other teams couldn’t function without IT.
One way to break down artificial barriers between IT and other teams is to start using language that is more inclusive. If you need to talk about departments outside IT, talk about ‘the rest of the business’.
“The key for any IT manager is to realize that their primary focus is to serve the business and its customers,” says J. Lance Reese, President of Idaho-based consulting firm Silver Peak Consulting, Inc. “IT is not a technology organization, it is a business unit the same as sales, marketing, finance, R&D, and so on.”
Once you’ve got that distinction clear, you can think about how you approach other people to explain your role as an IT manager.
Getting the message across
“Most business managers today are fairly switched on about IT, but often they don’t understand as much as they think they do,” says Marc O’Brien, Chief Information Officer at The Hyde Group, one of England's largest providers of social housing and support services.
“I usually explain what IT managers do in functional terms, e.g. Bill looks after the mail service. It gets more difficult when Bill looks after the middleware! If the explanation draws blank looks I tend to go for car analogies – I don’t know why, but people seem to understand the notion of Total Cost of Ownership about a car but not an IT system.”
Different audiences will need different types of communication, and explanations tailored to different aspects of your job.
“The board cares about revenues, profits, and long term viability,” says Reese. “Technology is a key component for competitive advantage, opening new markets, and creating an agile infrastructure that can adapt to ever changing competitive sectors and challenges. Any manager talking to the board should be explaining how their technologists are focused on creating business results and developing business solutions, increasing revenues, profits, and growth.”
A team leader in the customer services department will most likely glaze over if you start talking about competitive sectors and agile infrastructure. You’ll need to take a different approach when explaining the value of IT to junior business colleagues.
“IT can help them be successful by providing critical strategic information and creating tools that allow the manager to focus on her team to accomplish business objectives,” says Reese. “Technology is a tool and methodology to enhance business results and facilitate growth.”
Be clear on what you actually do
It’s hard to get your message across effectively if you don’t really understand it yourself. The first step in any good communication campaign is to be clear about the message, and talking to your colleagues over coffee about what you do all day is no different.
“An IT manager should play a strategic role and be a driver of the company,” says Robert Dickey, President of Sapphire Technologies, one of the ten largest IT staffing companies in the U.S. “The role of an IT manager within an organization is to ultimately identify and bring forth technology infrastructure and solutions in order to propel their organization forward.”
Dickey believes that the overall job includes spending time working out how to make the organization more effective through better use of technology. “Additionally, IT managers consult and suggest ideas to enhance and to further develop their organization from a technical standpoint based on their understanding of the business acumen,” he adds. “The IT manager should position themselves as a partner with an overall goal of using their technological know-how and applying it to the needs of the business.”
O’Brien believes that IT managers have two roles to play in the company: “They undertake a functional role with all of the associated accountabilities, e.g. looking after the Exchange service, and they have the same role as any other manager in the business, with a clear accountability of looking after all aspects of the business.”
Focus on the services you offer
“An IT department should prove to be a valuable partner to the leaders within a company and align with the overall strategy of the business plan,” says Dickey. “Some of the goals of the group should include efficiencies of scale, technology innovations and advancements, solutions to propel the business forward in to the future, and to explore and identify creative ways to support the organization.”