Communication strategy is critical to establishing IT as a partner

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CIO Hands Communication

When IT and the business are communicating regularly and effectively, open decision-making often happens as a result. And that can go a long way in curbing negative perceptions while establishing IT as a partner.

Before implementing our strategic communications program, there was the perception that IT made all the decisions in a vacuum and shoved them down everyone's throats. In reality, of course, IT would focus on a problem internally and try to balance all the considerations, but at the end of the day, no one outside of IT had any visibility into all the work that was going on behind our closed door. When we would finally reveal what we had been working on, it was often met with confusion or opposition. Frankly, it is not enough to promulgate the status of systems, services and capabilities only when changes are ready to be rolled into production. Each relevant element in a high-level project process is meaningful to a community of stakeholders.

Now, long before any changes occur, we communicate out what our process is, and what steps we anticipate – from concept, to research, to design, to planning, to staging, to execution, and, eventually, to review. As we move from one phase to the next, we let the community know and give them a chance to get clarification or make comments or suggestions. This allows us to narrow the decision space during each portion of a project, but more importantly, it gives stakeholders the opportunity to raise concerns and to influence us well in advance of execution.

The power of a full communication plan

We recently migrated email and calendaring for all faculty and staff from a local environment to a cloud offering two weeks before final exams. In the process of doing this, we resolved a number of policy and technical issues, such as upgrading associated software products on managed desktops. It was impossible to perform this migration with no disruption. One central aspect of the migration was a full communication plan that framed the project for the community during the concept phase. We placed IT stakeholders at ground zero of the decision-making process throughout the project and used their feedback to establish schedules and to formulate strategies to mitigate transition challenges. We crafted targeted communications to key executives and broad communications to the entire institution. We preplaced critical information and support activities. As the final transition got closer and closer, we kept increasing the frequency of communication efforts to heighten visibility.

We knew well that any questions or issues experienced by key executives would ultimately get priority and so we migrated them and their primary support people in advance to focus on their transition experience and, more importantly, to ensure that our general support capacity would remain in the field and in support of the community when we performed the big transition. All of this was done with a high degree of visibility using a variety of brief, clear, targeted, high quality communications.

Subsequent to the completion of this migration, quite a few key campus stakeholders offered unsolicited feedback. These were influential decision makers and they have had, and will continue to have, the opportunity to directly or indirectly impact the central IT organization and its access to resources. None of these individuals chose to comment on the policy issues that we tackled. Beyond casual interest, none of them seemed to care much about the underlying technology shift. Very few felt compelled to opine about our decision to execute the project so close to final exams. Every single one of them complimented the project on its excellent communications plan.  

Transparency by design

Now that the lines of communication have been opened up, and the community at large is engaging and interacting with IT in new ways, we are executing in a much more transparent way and curbing some of that confusion and opposition much earlier in the process. There are certainly always people who will say, “I wish you would have done 'X' instead.” In a diverse community with widely disparate needs and preferences, I think that is unavoidable. But today, nobody feels like they had no say, or that an IT initiative came out of the blue.  

All IT organizations immerse themselves in architectural and technology centric aspects of projects. These are necessary, but not sufficient conditions to success. Good IT organizations recognize and pursue the relationship between technology approaches and their corresponding alignment to business drivers and relevant community sensibilities. Excellent IT organizations realize that perception is reality. A community that recognizes that they are a part of the process and that their concerns and perspective have informed IT decision making are much more accepting of the real tradeoffs that must be made to balance often unbounded needs against finite resources and other practical realities.

Better communications have allowed us to lift the veil on the inner workings of IT and really shine a light on how IT works with the business, and vice versa. In the end, we all share credit and can jointly celebrate our mutual successes.

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