How'd things go for you today?
-- Lyrics from "Hello Walls" by Willie Nelson
How to Start Breaking Down Silos and Partnering with Your Institution's Leadership
Information Technology is now the engine under the hood of most organizations.
For better or worse, people who love technology may not understand it very well. Everyone understands how much they rely on it for everyday life, from email to scheduling, from cars to smartphones. People are also enamored with the cool factor of the latest gadget or remarkable software, and they want more access, now.
This is especially prevalent in higher education, where staff and faculty have the same "wow" factor with the technology that's at the fingertips of their students. And they want to make sure they’re seen leading the way with the latest technology, not playing catch-up.
Where do they go for answers? The IT department, naturally.
IT: The Department of No
The result is that every single department, from administration to political science to maintenance systems, wants a piece of IT's time and expertise for their special project.
That level of demand causes serious conflicts at every level. With so many projects on the table from so many players, the ability of IT to sort out priorities, create a consistent workflow and innovate is chronically hampered.
When one more person knocks on the IT department's door with yet another fantastic idea, they find that IT is less than enthusiastic.
IT gets a reputation as the “Department of No”.
Let's take a look at some of the issues behind the IT's central challenges in higher education.
We all understand the dilemma of too much work and too little time. That's a universal complaint from every IT department I've known, where the sheer number of projects is overwhelming. The workload is further complicated by conflicting due dates and a complete lack of guidance on the best way to establish priorities.
As a result, IT members do what humans naturally do in overwhelming situations: choose a job that can be finished quickly and carries little risk. While this makes the IT techs feel like they’re making some progress with very little risk, project completion often has no rhyme or reason, and the rest of the organization is understandably frustrated.
Sometimes, project status isn't based on the merits of the project itself or its impact in the organization. Instead, its importance is determined by personal alliances.
Particularly sly staff members or those with considerable influence in the organization always get their projects green-lighted while others gather dust. Certain IT members like working with specific departments, so those jobs always move along. It's a situation that tends to increase tension and resentments if the favoritism is obvious.
IT services are subject to the same budget pressures as every other department. When cutbacks or budget increases happen, it can directly impact the types of projects that get shelved or fast-tracked, yet again upsetting whatever order might have existed in the workflow.
I've also seen situations where a large influx of funds from a grant forces the IT department to shift its focus to make best use of that money within a specific timeline.
IT has two primary missions. The first is to maintain basic infrastructure like email, network maintenance and computer repair so day-to-day operations of the institution function smoothly. The second is innovation, which means that IT is responsible for developing new strategies and solutions that move every department forward.
When IT departments are slogging through emergencies like equipment failure or network crashes, other important creative work like creating a useful software tool or data management solution vanishes, leaving too many members of the IT team burned out from being in constant crisis mode. Morale drops and turnover increases.
While it is discouraging to see so many IT departments across the country dealing with the same issues, excellent solutions are not only possible, they have a proven success rate.
"Whoever renders service to many puts himself in line for greatness - great wealth, great return, great satisfaction, great reputation, and great joy."
-- Jim Rohn
Transforming IT into a Culture of Service
One of my clients had your typical overworked, highly stressed IT department. When I arrived on the scene, they had a massive backlog of projects and tasks, all with conflicting priorities, and they weren't sure where to begin.
During our work together, I helped them classify, sift, and sort this mountain of requests from unqualified hundreds to a focused few. We used principals and processes from ITIL™ to accomplish much of this, but more importantly, we helped change the team's perspective toward the people who were coming to IT every day for help. Instead of seeing faculty and staff as a never-ending stream of players demanding our limited resources, we established the IT department as a service provider to users and customers.
Good Relationships Mean Good Business
Our starting point in this new paradigm was our initial meeting with our customers. We chose to step away from the typical anonymous transaction of a job requisition for job completed and focus on our relationship with the people who needed help.
In these situations, ITIL, which is dedicated to best practices for aligning IT with businesses needs, recommends that a business relationship manager (BRM) process should be responsible for building these relationships. The BRM handles listening to customers, determining what they need, and matching those needs with the services the IT department provides.
Often, when faculty and staff arrive in IT with their want list, they're not sure how to communicate exactly what solutions are needed, and a whole lot of guesswork and miscommunication ensues. If this customer catches an IT team member at a particularly stressful time, the technician can become impatient or dismissive, further cementing IT's reputation as the “Department of No”.
The BRM helps eliminate a lot of potential misunderstandings. This role can weed through the vague ideas and dreams of the customer. He can also keep the best technicians, who are often fantastic with technology but less than stellar when it comes to relating to people, doing what they do best.
A customer service position also allows the IT department to give users perspective on their workload, project status updates, and project constraints in a consistent, coordinated manner. Staff and faculty don't feel like they're talking to a different person with each new project, and multiple techs don't feel like they're wasting time trying to explain the same information to another person who barely understands basic technical lingo.
Choosing to establish a BRM can be an excellent entry point to the IT workflow pipeline that helps mitigate a significant load of stress and miscommunication.
Offering Services Smooths the Path
IT providers are seen as the keepers of very specialized knowledge. Everyone uses cool gadgets, but the IT guys actually understand how they work and can (usually) fix them when they fail.
These skills can make IT techs seem almost mystical, prompting the everyday user to appear at their door with very little information and a request to “just fix” a problem or a hope that IT will “work their magic” to see an urgent project to completion.
While everyone likes to be the hero, this communication gap doesn't really improve efficiency or performance.
When an IT department clarifies what jobs they do well, which ones they do most often, and what it entails to request a custom project, they've just built another communication bridge. Customers understand more about their own job request and exactly what they're asking IT to provide for them. Suddenly, customers and IT have a common language, something that seems nearly impossible in many IT-customer interactions.
Listening Breaks Down Walls
Shifting to a customer service focus doesn't mean that suddenly, the IT department has to turn itself inside-out to meet every need. It means that excellent listening skills should be considered IT's most important tool.
Listening may seem passive, but offers a position of strength that's often underestimated. Here are some of the advantages listening offers people on both sides of the table:
- It gives customers time to explain their situation so the IT team can get past confusion to the deeper reason behind the request, saving time and money.
- Customers have to make a case for their project, making them -- not the IT team! -- responsible for sketching out the implications, risks, and budgetary needs. This is especially effective when a last-minute project emerges in a meeting.
- The more you listen, the more powerful solutions emerge. Maybe you can't build a custom program to perfectly meet a department's specific needs. But would an add-on to an existing program get close to the ideal?
Mentally, the most significant part of tackling an overwhelming workload is taking down the us vs. them mentality between IT and the people who need their help. Yes, there will always be obstructionists who place the blame on IT when progress isn't happening. And it seems that there's always one difficult IT member who can't seem to work with staff and faulty.
Remember that in the world of higher education, the emphasis is always on growth and progress. The more that you invest in create clear communication and expectations, the more your stress level and workload will diminish.