There was an interesting article on CIO Update on the impact of perception vs. reality on IT and how the quality of their service is viewed inside a corporation. It is definitely true that perception is reality, whether we are talking about “users” inside a company, or our own view of technology in the rest of the world. When the ATM doesn’t work, you take a dim view of the bank, even if you are technologist and know that things can go wrong. The article is good at outlining why an IT organization can have optics issues with their customers, but doesn’t offer much in the way of meaningful solutions to fixing the problem.
I’ve seen this problem first-hand at other places I’ve worked, both in IT and as a consumer of IT services. Many, many IT organizations take a “fire and forget” approach to working with their users inside the corporation. They only show up when there’s a problem, they fix it, and then disappear. I’ve seen some organizations hide behind a general e-mail address and internal phone number, and be purely reactive. Essentially, unless there is a problem, no one ever hears from IT or really knows what they are doing. Conversely, many IT staff are largely unaware of the company’s actual business. In some instances, I’ve seen the stereotypical IT organization that treats problems as annoyances and intrusions into their day, and users as an inconvenience.
I have also seen places where IT was viewed as an asset, and was generally viewed positively in the company. In these cases, there was some common themes on how they worked. These themes revolved around transparency, visibility and active participation. Everyone in the company had an opportunity see what IT was up to, and could be told why they were doing what they were doing. When anything happened that could affect the rest of the company, representatives from different groups would work along with IT to define requirements, answer questions and be part of the process. IT made a point of regularly publishing relevant information such as system uptime and availability, updates or upgrades to services, etc to keep their user community abreast of what was going on.
The transparency and participation went both ways: IT was encouraged to learn more about the business, so that they could guide their actions and decisions in a meaningful way. IT didn’t treat the company as a “black box”. As a result, the service provided and technology selected became more relevant to the company.
When this works well, what happens it that different groups in the company reach out and engage IT early in any of their projects. I had one instance where a group within the company had very poor experiences with IT, and would bypass or avoid them whenever possible. At some point, one of their machines had an adverse effect on the entire corporate network (a network that spanned a city and affected several thousand people). When I contacted them to resolve the problem, they were very, very surprised that I wasn’t interested in shutting down the offending server and leaving it at that. I made an effort to understand what the machine did and what they needed it for, and it turns out it was very important. So, my next step: work with the customer and their vendor to correct the immediate problem. We had the machine back on the network very rapidly. The next event was a pleasant surprise: they wanted to upgrade their equipment, and they got our team involved in making sure the new machine wouldn’t cause a problem. They could have just as easily bought it and hoped for the best. Instead, we were able to track down some problems in the networking in the new machine, and worked with the vendor to fix them. When the new servers went on the network, it went very smoothly and with little or not problems.
All of this happened because the IT organization I worked in made an effort to actively work with customers, not just to resolve problems in the technology, but to help them use the technology to make their jobs easier. We made sure customers new what we were doing. Our users actively participated in pilots for new hardware and software. They were involved in our major decisions, because every one of those decisions had an impact on their parts of the business. In the end, there was visibility, transparency and active participation by all parties, and the result was better IT infrastructure, and happier customers. Those customers were a bit more patient when problems did arise, because they felt they were part of the original solution, so the problem wasn’t just “IT’s problem”, it was theirs too. We worked as a team instead of adversaries. We didn’t just “fire and forget”, we made our customers our partners, with better outcomes as a result.