Tips for creating relationships across IT and business boundaries

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Proven actions that enable more effective communication across lines of business, departments and other silo boundaries.

In today’s fast-moving digital world, creating relationships that enable and sustain collaboration to solve problems or create new value is a key to success. And as I’ve blogged before, CIOs need to create relationships between their IT teams and the business stakeholders to achieve more effective communication. Not an easy objective, considering how siloed most organizations are these days. I want to share with you some of the successful strategies deployed at Jacobs Engineering to build such relationships.

I learned of these strategies in one of my conversations with Cora Carmody, who served as CIO of global technology companies including Jacobs Engineering Group and SAIC for the past 19 years, leaving the company in 2015. Jacobs Engineering provides technical, professional and construction services to industrial, commercial and government clients.

Boundaryless culture

Carmody explained that Jacobs’ leadership is committed to diversity and has a longstanding passion for being a relationship-based business. In 2012, they implemented an internal social network called JacobsConnect. It successfully drove a deeper sense of personal relationships across the company all around the world, regardless of whether the employees were in IT, project management, engineering or one of the other support functions.

“Jacobs strove to have a boundaryless culture, and this really helped to drive the boundaries down,” said Carmody.

Work relationships: it’s not just about business

There’s an idea being shaped that IT is moving from a system of records to a system of engagements, and I think that’s clearly the direction companies are going with new technology investments. If you think about engagement, it’s about making a connection to customers and to employees. Basically, to connect, you need to understand their point of view and incorporate it into the way you do business. Otherwise, you won’t achieve as deep a connection and will diminish value from investments.

When Jacobs implemented its social network, JacobsConnect, the company's previous CEO said, “We build relationships based on what we like as people. I don’t watch cat videos, but I’m not about to block people who want to talk about their cats on Jacobs Connect.” She says that decision set the tone for a deep connectivity.

The company's previous CEO recognized that humans work through common affinities that may not have anything to do with their job or the work they do. We’re people first, even at work, and we connect on those affinities, whether they’re work-related or not.

Carmody was quick to point out the impact of relationship building on teamwork. “You’re more willing to go out on a limb and do a favor or pick up the slack for a team member if you know and like that person. Building relationships helps everyone get along better, and that makes a more productive environment.”

Building IT connections to the business

The relationship improvement program through Jacobs Connect then led to Carmody establishing a career-improvement program in IT. This mechanism was designed to not only help the individuals in IT but also to build or accelerate IT’s connections to key decision makers and business stakeholders throughout the company.

The mechanism was hinged on two programs: (a) a leadership and work/life program (LIWL) and (b) setting up cross-functional IT mentoring teams (referred to as “Cross-F/IT teams”). The LIWL program for the IT group included business topics, technology topics, interpersonal topics and Myers-Briggs materials.

As I’ve blogged many times, CIOs these days recognize that a significant IT challenge is determining how to build connections to the business users and decision makers. Carmody says the Jacobs Cross-F/IT mentoring teams in IT attracted people outside of IT who were engaged in classic teams. They liked what they saw happening in IT and started participating in IT’s LIWL program. The CEO, chairman and CFO, all of whom have since left the company, even participated in town hall meetings in the program. “So our LIWL series gave IT more access to the leaders of the business,” recalled Carmody.

Cross-functional mentoring creates safe climate for growth

Carmody told me the Cross-F/IT mentoring teams program was designed around the concept of a personal board of directors. A topic was selected each month for each IT employee to discuss with his or her personal board of directors comprised of cross-functional, diverse advisors from within IT. The topics focused on enabling the employee to take action on career improvement.

“A lot of people think their manager will see to it that they get promoted. But that’s a bit of a fallacy,” said Carmody. “People need to own their own career, not delegate it to anybody, even a manager. The Cross-F/IT teams challenge an employee’s individual development plan and how to have discussions with managers on the next career step.”

Jacobs has a large, globally distributed IT group, so the program also aimed to bind people across IT globally. Carmody recalls that one of the Cross-F/IT teams had people in seven different time zones around the world, and the program worked nicely in enabling them to get to know each other. She adds that it creates a safe climate within an organization when you know more people personally.

Bottom line

It takes hard work for any company to be successful. We spend more time with the people we work with than we do with our own families. And if we can’t have fun, enjoy and be comfortable with the people we work with, then we won’t be “happy” at work and it won’t lead to a successful workplace.

In my next blog post, I’ll share some of the initiatives and outcomes at Jacobs Engineering that directly benefited from the relationship-building and boundary-removing strategies described here.

The company’s previous[SRL1] 

 [SRL1]Please clarify that this initiative was led by Jacobs’ previous CEO.

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