by Stephanie Overby

State of the CIO 2003 Best Practive #5: Communicate with Users

Apr 01, 20036 mins

If you ask Becky Autry what she spends most of her time on as CIO of the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC), she’ll tell you without question it’s communication. And like many successful CIOs, she sees the benefit of communicating with users?from business leaders on down?outside the course of specific IT initiatives.

According to “The State of the CIO 2003” survey, 56 percent of best practices CIOs say that communication with the user population at large is indispensable. There are about as many ways to communicate with users as there are CIOs who do so, but some clear trends show up in the kinds of efforts that work best.

Show and Tell

For Autry, communication with her nearly 600 users?some working at the Colorado Springs headquarters, some located at training camps and others traveling all over the country?comes in a variety of forms. At the highest level, she issues a State of IT report each quarter on the USOC intranet, detailing what the technology team did in the previous quarter and what’s coming next. Although the online report was far from a hit initially, Autry (a 29-year veteran of IT) knew she had to keep publishing. “The first time you put something out there, you might not get the response that you expect, but you can’t just drop it. You have to keep at it,” she says.

Since Autry deals with what amounts to several different businesses within the USOC?from training camps that operate much like hotels to a sports medicine facility that needs health-care-type applications?the report shows users who are vying for her services what’s going on outside their own departments and why IT has said no to certain requests. The report also reveals work done by IT that’s easily overlooked by users, such as antivirus projects.

In addition, Autry periodically holds an IT open house, where her team displays technology at work in various areas of the USOC. Often, an employee from one business department will see an application being used by another group and will think of how to make it work for himself. A hands-on supplement to the quarterly IT reports, these gatherings give users a clearer understanding of how IT works than they can get from just reading. “They’ll see something and say, Hey, I could use that,” says Autry. “And then you have a new project that is the users’ idea, and they have a stake in it.”

Reach Out

Autry’s outreach has been well received, but equally important to her is the other side of discourse?listening. She and her staff of 36 keep their ears open for new initiatives going on in other departments. “If we hear of some idea like, say, a new marketing program, we invite ourselves to the meeting,” Autry explains. “We simply say, Hey, we might be able to help with that. Can we come?” Sometimes IT can offer assistance, sometimes it can’t, but Autry says the time in those meetings is always well spent because it sets the tone that IT should be involved in business initiatives.

Show Them the Money

Like Autry, Marcia Balestrino is a consistent communicator. As senior vice president of information and technology for the Girl Scouts of the USA, she publishes articles about IT in the CEO’s biweekly newsletter, creates a monthly IT newsletter for the 300 local Girl Scout offices and hosts national technology conferences to display her department’s best work. Yet she still has trouble convincing her business partners and users at Girl Scout headquarters (who historically have not been involved in IT) that her department adds value to the organization.

Last year, she started publishing a quarterly communiquŽ called Dollars and Sense, which she distributes to executives at the Girl Scouts’ New York City headquarters. With hard numbers, it details each department’s portion of total technology expenditures?from the telephone system on up to large IT projects.

Getting that information together has been a big challenge, but communicating the cost and ultimate worth of what her department does will be invaluable, Balestrino says. “It’s a way of charging back [costs] without charging back, and of giving users a real understanding of the cost of technology,” she says. “In the past, their perception was that the technology budget was just for the technology department. But now they see it supports the entire organization. And as they receive this information on a regular basis, we hope they can use it to help make better technology decisions in the future.”

Keep an Open Line

To foster communication between Smurfit-Stone Container’s approximately 40,000 employees and his IT staff, Burdiss has taken a page from customer-facing groups, creating a customer advocate position within IT. The advocate, who was hired in April 2002, spends time with the line users at the plants. “She’s basically an ombudsman,” Burdiss explains. “She’s not there to replace the help desk; she’s not there just to be bitched at; she’s there to talk to our customers and find out what they need.”

The new position has helped the IT group build real relationships with the business side, Burdiss says. But the customer advocate’s ongoing exchange with users has had practical benefits as well. Recently, one plant was trying to upgrade its business planning and control system software, but the customer advocate knew from talking with employees that the plant had done an incredible amount of customization in its initial implementation. She warned them to wait on the upgrade and spread the word to IT colleagues. “If the plant had just done that upgrade on its own, it probably would have brought the whole place down,” Burdiss says. The customer ombudsman position has become so valuable so quickly that Burdiss is looking into expanding its scope.

But he cautions that simply hiring people to talk to users on a regular basis would be insufficient if he weren’t following up with the same kind of relationship-building with the business. Burdiss meets at least quarterly with each division’s executive to discuss what IT has done for the unit thus far and what it can do in the future.”You can’t put any of these types of communication efforts in place unless the CIO himself is taking an out-in-front posture,” Burdiss says. “The CIO can’t sit in his office. He can’t do it over the telephone. He has to get out and meet with people and say, ’What can I do to help you?’ Just ask the question and shut up.”