Raise your IT department's profile with these moves from UCONN CIO's playbook

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CIO Engaging, retaining and co-creating IT

When IT is viewed as a cost center, the rest of the business continually asks, “Are we getting our value?” When things go wrong, they wonder what they are paying for. When things go right, they wonder what they are paying for. That narrow view ties the success and reputation of IT to a history of technology decisions alone – good or bad – and diminishes the strategic role IT plays in all aspects of the business. Of course, when an analysis is performed behind closed doors and the rationale behind near term choices is fundamentally opaque to your stakeholders, this narrow view is all that they have. If this is the perception of IT within your organization, I suggest you borrow a page from the CMO playbook and hone your communications skills.

Any IT organization that is going to be truly effective in their role has a vested interest in ensuring that they have a comprehensive communications and marketing strategy in place, both internally and externally. Invariably, your community has a relatively small number of touchpoints with which to establish and maintain an opinion about the organization. Every communication is one of those touchpoints because, by its very nature, it is anomalous and therefore noticed and remembered. This is not an initiative to “sell” the organization, but it is one to ensure that IT is both visible and relevant. The quality of these communications is a defining characteristic of the organization.

Step one: Hire a writer

To tackle this need head on, I hired a writer to work solely within my IT organization. I faced some opposition in getting approval for this position and had to go to the mat to defend the need. But I was adamant – we desperately needed the capability to produce high-quality materials to share with our community that would concisely convey our goals and progress.

A messaging formula you can use

Modest changes should be shared broadly when they are relevant to the community, but perspective and execution matter. One of our communications activities is called “IT smart,” and it is a way to showcase how IT has solved a problem that some constituency in our community is having. These messages describe a relatively small, common sense modification to a system, service or capability that either enhances functionality or addresses a pain point. The messaging consists of a one-sentence lead followed immediately by a very small amount of relevant context typically describing a problem or a gap. This is tied clearly to who might be experiencing it to show that this came to our attention via their feedback. There is one, but no more than two, sentence(s) clarifying the change and how it either addresses the issue or adds capability. Lastly, there is typically a one sentence positive closure. It is a five- or six-sentence, feel-good communication that puts IT in a positive light. It is written from the perspective of the university community and shared broadly with IT professionals and other stakeholders. Communicating is not a CIO only initiative and most messages are authored jointly to reflect this emphasis throughout all facets of existing operations.

Persistence pays off

It all sounds so obvious and simple, but it did not start that way. There was initial pushback. The internal view was, “What a pain. Why is Michael such a hawk about messaging? Why is he insisting that we communicate this, or communicate that? Do we need to go through four or five iterations of a short message to get it tight, clean and polished before it goes out? Does all this really make a difference?” The community, on the other hand, reacted almost immediately. Occasionally, there were questions, but they were not hostile questions – they were engaging with IT, asking for clarification or offering encouragement or appreciation or support. What a difference!

We persisted down this path with frequent, simple but high-quality messages. Over time, the conversation around these communication efforts shifted. Now people say, “Actually, these are really effective.” We get the messages out, and there is very little blowback. Service managers actively seek the assistance of our communications support staff to make sure that their messaging is not just technically accurate, but that it will be highly effective. Today, our general internal rule is quite simple. By the time you ask, “should we communicate about this?” The answer is already and unequivocally “yes!” All that remains is to understand precisely what to communicate and how.

Communicating for effect

In total, it took about six months of persistence to establish a well-known heartbeat to the communications strategy. There was an expectation both inside and outside of the IT organization that we would be providing them information about what we were doing and why. While there was quick feedback on specific messages, eventually I started getting a lot of unsolicited general feedback from people throughout the community saying things like, “We noticed that the quality of messaging from IT has gotten a lot better. We really like that you make the effort to keep us informed. We look for those weekly messages because they help us understand the latest changes that you are making, and why.” They were no longer merely commenting on specific changes but were expressing positive opinions about their relationship with the IT organization.

When you invest in effective, two-way IT communications, you open an ongoing dialog in which the business and IT are aligned around transparent goals. You no longer have to wait for people to question whether or not they are getting value because the value is apparent in every message.

Michael is the Vice Provost for Information Technology (VPIT) and Chief Information Officer (CIO) at the University of Connecticut and leads the University Information Technology Services (UITS) area, which is a university division responsible for providing enterprise systems and services.  His role includes oversight of central operational activities and evolution of Information Technolog