Let’s start with a riddle.
Imagine that you are responsible for your company’s telephone infrastructure and are tasked with buying a whole new system. You’re given just one criteria on which to evaluate your choices, cost.
What sort of telephone system do you buy?
I’ll get to the answer in a second (this is called “building anticipation”).
There are two characteristics of typical IT staff that really impact the perceptions we have of IT. Forgive the profiling; let me remind you not to hate the player, rather hate the game if you must hate something about what I’m saying.
- The IT people that typically come into contact with people1 in your company often lack communications skills. They often don’t know anything about the business, and may not even really care what company they work for. They view their job as distant to the company’s mission itself. I remember I was walking around the Port of Newark designing a Frame Relay network (have you ever needed a weather-proof computer rack/enclosure?) and I asked the guy how things worked at the port. He proudly replied that he had no idea, he just kept the network up and running.
- Non-IT people don’t understand and are frustrated by technology. When IT people don’t communicate well, these non-IT people respond with frustration and fear, which leads to them fall-back to what they know, what comforts them. Cost/benefit. Accounting. Money. “I can’t judge the value of what you have given me, so I’m going to determine it’s value by how much you spent.”
In a conversation the other day, I showed a friend a new travel website that I think has a fabulous user interface. He took a look, said he couldn’t find a flight to Hong Kong. I told him to fly somewhere else, and then made a joke that I’d be a good IT person. He knew immediately what I was talking about. This is the sort of communication that happens all the time the contributes to the frustration.
And, the answer to the riddle? Which phone system would you buy if you were making the decision solely based on cost?
You’d buy none.
If the sole criteria for your decision is to minimize cost, minimize it by not buying a phone system. Your total cost: $0.00. Job well done. [snark]
Clearly there is an implied value to expect from a phone system, and most likely your directive is to get some amount of functionality for the best cost possible. Not to minimize cost absolutely.
We all want to reduce IT costs, but still want to keep the lights on and do business. How do we do a better job at using IT to do better business? We need to reevaluate how we understand and allocate IT costs.
And, here’s the original point of my post.
The difficulty with this situation is that, if viewed as a COST center IT only owns half the “situation”. The VALUE side of the situation is owned by someone else. In English, that means, IT bears the COST of the phone system while the business gets the VALUE of having a phone. If IT is judged purely on cost or cost management, it’s not necessarily in alignment with the business’ objectives of doing more/better business.
If you want to read more about this from an IT perspective, you must read this post about how IT costs are allocated at a big financial firm.
What can we do about this? Well, in my situation as someone who evangelizes the value of technology for solving problems it’s important to pitch the right value to the right person. And, to make sure the value and cost align with my audience. I build credibility by deeply understanding my customer’s challenges. Though that understanding I build credibility. That credibility bleeds over to the solutions I propose. I’m not going to sell better by explaining my products better. I’m going to sell better by being the person who best understands my customer’s needs.
As an IT person, I think a way to get started is to work more closely with business people to break down the communication barriers. Work your communications skills, and educate your counterparts. Not so much so that people can fix their own computers, but so that they trust that you understand their business. If you can articulate their story back to them and empathize with their IT experience, they’ll trust that that the solution you provide is one that’s going to meet their current needs and anticipate their future needs.
Imagine if IT valued communications training as much as technical certifications?
Imagine, instead of having 20% of your time to work on “new and innovative” projects, IT support individuals spent 2 hours a week with their company’s people, to see and listen to their experiences?
I’m going to break this into two posts. Next, we’ll talk about a backup solution as a practical application of the value of IT not being in alignment with the cost, and how it affects us all. We’ll also look at the IT process, and see how ignoring what I’m talking about is like pumping pollution into the Hudson River. Stay tuned.
- I abhor the use of the word “users” [↩]