by Laurie M. Orlov

How IT Departments Can Learn to Say Yes to End Users

Nov 15, 20077 mins
Business IT AlignmentProject Management Tools

You say yes when business colleagues ask for something new, but usually you don't really mean it. That won't fly anymore. An expert in IT organizations advises how to adjust your (and your team's) attitude.n

When it comes to new requests from business peers, IT organizations typically put on a happy face. From the CIO to the help desk, staffers try hard to fit new systems into the context of the old, get changes onto the list of prioritized projects and get a grip on emerging technologies. But behind the smiles, let’s face it: The job of an IT organization is to protect information with standards, preserve prioritized investments and minimize risk.


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In fact, to do the job has historically meant finding ways to keep smiling and still say no: We can’t, we shouldn’t and we won’t. We don’t support Treos when we have standardized on BlackBerry. And of course, saying no also left behind a prescriptive echo: Use this, wait for that and we’ll be rolling out that portal or sales force automation system to your department…someday. But times have changed, and IT is poorly positioned to cling to the “it’s our policy” and “that’s our plan” refrains of yesteryear. From business execs to college interns, everybody in the enterprise wants what they want, whether or not it’s within policy and plan. And IT departments now have to figure out how to say yes more often.

So, you’re asking, what the heck are we supposed to do when we can’t keep loading new demands onto our already sagging plates? And how are we supposed to know what users really want, anyway? The answer (fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your point of view) involves some wrenching behavioral and structural changes in IT.

The New End User

In the old days, the only way employees could access most software or hook up a new piece of hardware was with help. The exceptional super user was just that, super. Today, the list of tools an employee can use without IT help just takes your breath away. Between the USB slots in laptops, the boatload of social networking sites, hosted applications, open-source and easily downloaded tools, it’s a new day in the office. Then there’s the technology employees use at home, where many are running mini IT departments for their spouses and kids. And of course, Sue in accounting expects to be able to easily connect her work laptop to the Internet through her home wireless network.

The new end users ask for more things. But it’s better for IT execs who don’t want to say no to be tuned in enough to know what these users are about to ask. As Rich Fagan, CIO of CalTech, notes: “In a university setting, we know that when the iPhone shows up in the store, the next day faculty members will be looking for help, so we are prepared to try.” On the day Microsoft Vista launched, the CIO of a large European airline sent an e-mail explaining why the airline’s rollout won’t be for at least a year.

But it’s not enough to head requests off at the inbox—it’s reactive and defensive. Here’s what you need to do instead:

Four Ways to Get to Yes

Energize a curious culture. Alastair Behenna, the CIO of Harvey Nash, a global talent management firm, figures out what emerging technologies are all about, so when business users come with ideas, he knows what they’re talking about. He’s explored mash-ups (“just a new form of integration”); how to create an avatar on Second Life; and what the various permutations of can do for his company.

More importantly, he makes sure his staff experiments, too. “We have a lab where our team—from the help desk to the web folks—is encouraged to spend as much as 10 percent of its time figuring out if there is commercial benefit to something [new] and doing a proof of concept if so. Today we are looking at the touch iPod for use on the road because of its web browsing capabilities.” This approach enables him to present end users with technologies that they will benefit from before they have a chance to request them, or be ready with a lightweight proof of concept when they do ask for something.

Create a common language. Like any foreign language, the techno-babbling of IT—Web 2.0 this, SaaS that, SOA those other things—creates frustrating barriers. Behenna observes that IT has developed a language that once gave it power over the business. But that language has in turn made IT weak. End users ignore what they don’t understand, corporate systems wither on the vine and then, Behenna says, “For IT, failure will come as a complete surprise!”

How to fix the dialogue? Acknowledge what end users know and use it as a starting point for a conversation. “We should hear a request and say ‘let’s discover how best to do what you ask'” says Behenna. “Let’s help you make an informed choice by familiarizing you with what we can support today and then we will see how we can help with what you want to do.”

Push your staff out of its comfort zone. We’ve long talked about moving business analysts out into the business. It’s time to take another look at org structures and physical locations to make sure that as many people as possible from all levels of our organizations spend as much time as they can with end users.

The CIO at one large chemicals company sends his staff into the field and assigns everyone a metric to meet—for example, improving customer service. At a telecom firm, IT staffers visit “work centers” from billing to customer care. They participate in calls with customers to find ways that service processes can be automated.

Once outside the comfortable walls of IT and talking with end users, IT people can identify improvements to business operations that have never been requested but would be highly valued—like automatic notification of customers when service tickets are closed. In this way, IT can collaborate—get to yes—with the service staff to streamline work.

Learn how to sell. Being able to sell your services is an essential (and often missing) ingredient for IT organizations to move from a baseline of saying no to being capable of saying, Yes, let’s see how we can help. Imagine that tomorrow, your IT infrastructure and applications became revenue generators, and think then how the staff would interact with its constituents who are paying customers.

The IT staff would need relationship management training. All interactions would have to be tracked so that their costs are included as part of the profit structure of the firm, and all conversations would have a sales, marketing or services dimension.

This happened at Security Benefit Group, where Dave Keith was CIO from 1999 to 2006. After Dave led IT’s redesign of the company’s systems, he led an initiative to launch a business process outsourcing (BPO) service running on the new environment. Eventually, the initiative became a revenue-generating division of the company. IT workers were spun off to staff the new product group and Keith became that unit’s CEO, according to a report about the initiative at the time. One of Keith’s staffers, trained in relationship management, went out and closed several significant new business deals. Much to this person’s surprise, he learned he was capable of selling—despite his legacy in IT.

Leaders must move IT from a no to a yes mind-set. But miracles won’t make it happen. Your staff won’t wake up one morning worried that they have said no one time too many. You need to set the tone for the role IT will play.

If you agree that collaboration trumps proscription, that anticipating needs is preferable to reacting, and that your staff is too insular, it’s time to inspire them (and train them) to behave differently. Help them gain new relationship skills and send them out to learn how work is performed and how technology can be used. And perhaps the next time you or your team members say you’d love to help, you’ll really mean it.

Laurie M. Orlov does research and consulting on business and technology strategy. She is a former vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research.