By Shane Nixon
I am amazed at how good we humans are at describing “reality” to suit our needs—in other words, justification. Last holiday season, I heard two of my relatives describe the same trip in ways so different that you would have thought they came from different planets. One described the 90-mile trek as “close to two hours drive with major traffic issues and lots of road construction” while the other described the identical trip as “only about a 100 minute drive, with newly-constructed roads that make traffic no problem.”
As I tried to make sense of just which description actually matched the voyage, it occurred to me that I have been guilty of this in my role as the CIO. I have, on more than one occasion, found a reason why one of my folks should not be invited to a certain company function. I am not alone. I heard a colleague once say that his network administrator wasn’t the “staff meeting type.” Besides, my colleague argued, “those computer folks just start talking ‘technese’ and nobody understands them anyway.” Absence justified, meeting averted.
For years, IT managers, IS directors and CIOs have justified the absence of technologists at meetings, in corporate social settings and even in front of the customer. We have done this so long in fact, that the practice of not having technologists in these places has become almost an unwritten principle. The computer people are the folks down in the basement server room that we don’t approach: We call only when something is wrong, and we deliver mail by sliding it under the door and running. This has to stop. The truth is that there is no justification for “the computer guys” to be left out of a meeting in which their corporate or institutional peers participate.
I realize that it was these same computer guys (and gals) who themselves used the aforementioned justifications up front as excuses not to come. Indeed, we may well have hired them for their technological capabilities rather than for meeting-friendly personalities. And a strong case can be made that the “technese” they speak can detract from, rather than add to, a productive meeting. But none of those are valid justifications anymore.
Staff in every area of business find reasons not to go to meetings, but IT is the only one where it has been accepted and even now expected. This behavior of exclusion, and justification for it, has caused a rift between technologists and the people they are supposed to serve.
This was the case for our organization. When I came on board, inviting a member of IT to a professional meeting wasn’t an afterthought, it was never a thought. We took some very practical steps to change that, and it worked. Now I firmly believe it would be absurd to think of a meeting without an IT person in attendance.
How did we do it? First we changed our name from The Information Technology Department to Information Technology Services. It is much easier to see how services could play a role in your meeting, compared to a mysterious department. Meetings are about ideas, not necessarily information. We have a meeting to exchange ideas, and then we send a memo to all who need the information those ideas helped to create.
Next we invited other people to our meetings. This one sounds strange in light of having admitted that occasionally IT folks speak another language. We asked several people from strategic areas within our organization to join us on an IT task force. They got to know us, saw the power of information and viol¿Now they viewed us differently and when it came time for their meeting, we found ourselves invited and expected to come.
Finally, and this sounds completely insane, we just showed up. Either our lead technologist or I started to just show up at meetings we found out about that were within our peer group. How did we find out? Someone would turn in a request for network connection in a certain conference room, or another person would want to check out a laptop for a presentation. We would observe who was gathering for a meeting in these places where we had good reason to be included, and when appropriate, we’d stick around. The next meeting reminder would show up in our e-mail box.
This isn’t, or wasn’t for us at least, about getting IT invited to a meeting for invitations’ sake. It is about institutional respect for your team, and the good of your entire organization.
Once a CEO told me that he wished he could just put the IT guys in a room with all the servers and shut the door. He wanted to run by occasionally and rattle the window to see if the gang was still “breathing.” He’d slide a pizza under the door if the network didn’t crash during an important presentation. In short, he wanted the IT staff to be invisible and silent. His justification for that was that keeping a network like ours up and running probably kept them too busy to be meeting with anybody anyway.
I must confess I let him convince me back then. But years of watching IT interact and participate, not just react and respond, have changed my mind. IT staffers need a spot at the table. I still believe meetings are about ideas, and I also believe in my staff and I know they have good ideas.
If any group, team or department is left out of the decision-making process, the whole organization suffers.
There is no justification for that!
Shane Nixon is CIO for the nonprofit group Baptist Children’s Homes of NC, Inc. You can reach Shane by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.