by Polly Schneider Traylor

Managing Expectations by Educating Users About Technology’s Limitations

Nov 15, 20017 mins

Like most CIOs, Don Rawlinson is omniscient. Not only does he have complete textbook knowledge of every computer system ever created, he also has a genetically encoded radar for detecting and understanding next year’s technologies. That’s what his coworkers believe, anyway. When a colleague at the U.S. Army School of Aviation Medicine in Fort Rucker, Ala., bounces into Rawlinson’s office with a question about the latest innovations in (insert technology of choice), the CIO is happy to share his fountain of wisdom. But often as not, he will have to say, “I don’t know a thing about it.”

Ah, the joys of being a CIO. Not only must you have all the answers, but you also must complete every project on time and under budget, even as users squeeze every moment of your staff’s day with the same mundane tech support questions. If someone’s power cord is unplugged, guess who gets the call? “Sometimes I think about buying a Dunkin’ Donuts,” quips Dennis L’Heureux, corporate vice president and CIO of Rockford Health System in Rockford, Ill.

Managing expectations has never been easy in IS, but the problem seems to be worse than ever. The need for leadership on how companies make strategic use of IT has made the CIO job infinitely more complex and political. And tough economic times have only bolstered the demand for ROI, as many CIOs have tighter budgets and smaller staffs.

It is possible for technology leaders to take control, however. Above all, you need to foster trust within your senior executive team. Become a mediator when conflicts arise. Learn how to manage up, delegate, prioritize and encourage responsibility in others. Rawlinson views his job as one of research, integration and execution of technology projects?he doesn’t have to be the all-encompassing tech expert. Still, some days he’s perplexed by the eclectic nature of his job. “I will be on a ladder one day, the next I could be going to Washington for a meeting with high-level officers on knowledge management,” he says.

Look Out for Number One

First question: Are you the problem? Always saying yes to requests and making promises you can’t keep will inevitably result in disappointed users and botched projects.

Paul Thorn, manager of the management information technology office for the city of Annapolis, Md., readily admits a proclivity toward overextension. When he is uncertain whether he can take on another deliverable, Thorn uses his three-person staff as a sounding board. “They are quite critical…and bring me back to earth,” he says.

When L’Heureux has to make a decision on a request, he goes through the following thought process: 1) Say no because the political consequences are too high if the slightest thing goes wrong; 2) say yes, but spell out the need for more time or resources; 3) accept the risk and agree to the terms. The bottom line is that CIOs need the guts to make the decisions they think will be successful, regardless of what peers and even superiors say is a priority.

Many of these overload problems can be resolved with better delegation. Beverly Lieberman, president of IT at executive recruitment company Halbrecht Lieberman Associates in Stamford, Conn., believes that CIOs often dig their own graves by seizing greater responsibility?such as taking over the company’s Internet channel?to gain clout or power in the organization. As it is, most CIOs spend far too much time on tactical issues and meetings (up to 90 percent of their days, says Lieberman) rather than strategic thinking and building relationships. “CIOs need to hire a tactical CIO under them,” she says. (For more on deputy CIOs, see “IT Takes Two,” Page 88.)

Feel Their Pain

After finishing the self-inventory, take stock of your relationships with other senior players in the organization. In his previous job as the IT development director at Southeast Frozen Foods in Miami, Joe Gagliardi discounted a newly hired COO?a mistake, he says, that eventually led to a power struggle over a software package, the COO’s decision to cut IT spending and, ultimately, the defection of Gagliardi’s staff. Gagliardi left soon after for another job. His lesson? He should have spent more time getting to know the new COO and developing a working relationship from the beginning.

Now, as CIO at Miami-based shoemaker Unisa, Gagliardi frequently takes fellow executives to lunch, learns about their families and interests, and tries to understand their goals as they relate to technology. “I have made an effort here to [work with] every decision maker and executive,” Gagliardi says. “While I couldn’t necessarily satisfy all of them, at least I understood where they were coming from.”

It’s a dirty word, but sometimes CIOs have to play the politician. L’Heureux describes his job at Rockford?a health-care organization consisting of a hospital, clinic, home-care agency, health plan and foundation?as one of “bridge-building.” In contrast with most other industries, his end users?doctors?are targeted directly by vendors. To tone down the vendor rhetoric, L’Heureux offers clinicians regular presentations about technology. The technique helped mollify a physician who returned from a conference where he had seen a voice-recognition software demo. “He was convinced that voice recognition could work and requested that we begin right away,” L’Heureux recalls. “A simple no is rarely accepted.” L’Heureux invited the doctor to a discussion on voice-recognition technology that showed why the technology was not yet ready for prime time.

L’Heureux also cochairs (with a physician) an IT advisory committee that meets monthly, comprising directors and doctors from across the organization.

Teach a Man to Fish

As CIO, you’re expected to serve the customer at all times. But there comes a time when it’s OK to ask users to put forth a little effort in return. CIOs often complain of epidemic malaise among their users when it comes to learning and troubleshooting. “It amazes me that many are incapable of performing the simplest of computer tasks, but you put the Internet browser on the screen and they’re a video game professional,” Rawlinson says. The users at Fort Rucker are largely flight medic instructors with little computer experience. Even though Rawlinson advises them to sign up for computer classes at the education center on the base, few do. This lack of motivation frustrates Rawlinson, but he hasn’t given up on education. He often passes around magazine articles that discuss relevant apps and implementation. “I’ve been able to be more successful with that approach,” he says.

Gagliardi has a different attitude when it comes to intractable users. Fed up with equipment abuse in the company’s warehouses ($5,000 scanners have been run over by forklifts more than once), Gagliardi no longer seeks to force users to change their behavior. “I don’t believe in trying to manage every level of the organization,” he says. “If I have good support and trust with [executives], the other problems take care of themselves.”

Sometimes managing expectations is simply a matter of effective project management and planning. Sure, it takes courage to confront your boss and explain why you can’t grant his wish for a website redesign project in 90 days, as Rawlinson had to do last fall. But in the end, that’s what your boss expects you to do. “People are reasonable,” Rawlinson says, relieved that the redesign was finally completed after two iterations and seven months. “They just need to see the whole picture.”