Tips for Improving Communication with Your IT Department
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By Chris Chiancone, Chief Information Officer of Plano, Texas
Effective communication is often cited as one of the greatest challenges within any organization, but communication with an organization’s technology department can be especially challenging.
During the 20-plus years of my working career—nearly half of which I’ve been either a deputy or chief information officer for large cities—I have spent a lot of time and energy trying to better understand what makes communication so poor between technology departments and others within an organization. My experience has shown that problems arise because people outside IT do not understand the personality traits of the average technologist, and they don’t fully comprehend all the serious problems that IT staff are simultaneously trying to solve.
The Anatomy of a Technologist
True technologists are, in my opinion, one of the easiest groups of people I have ever had the opportunity to lead. Technologists who have embraced the mission and vision of the organization and understand its business problems work tirelessly researching issues, triaging problems, and leveraging workarounds to make sure that services are operating at the best levels possible. They do all these things to avoid three things: system failure, vulnerabilities and risk, and personal failure.
When a problem arises with an unknown solution, technologists often collaborate online, building micro-communities of fact- finding armies to sift through innuendo to find the truth. These technical professionals will keep posting, responding, and evaluating hundreds of posts until the answer to the issue becomes apparent. Once solutions are identified, they often report fixes to technology forums to help other technologists shorten their problem-solving process.
Typically, technologists all share some common traits:
- They genuinely care and strive to find answers to common and complex business and technical issues.
- As individuals, they are generally more introverted, non-confrontational, and have difficulty operating in foreign, non-technical social environments. Technologists sometimes have a hard time expressing challenges, especially if the challenge is beyond their control. Because of their personality, sometimes technologists will not challenge business requests in order to maintain harmony with the customer, even if it means that it creates additional work for the technology department or other domino- effect complications.
- They generally have incredibly high intelligence levels, moderate emotional intelligence quotients (EIQ), and complex social skills.
- They typically will find a way around bureaucracy, obstacles, and other perceived non-logical situations. Some outsiders interpret this behavior as being rogue, but it is the way technologists are wired. They do not have time to watch and wait, especially when a system has critical issues. They need to start troubleshooting and look for workarounds to restore service.
- They recognize the need for paperwork, but they often do not like it. The more electronic reporting systems that are in place, the more adoption you will get from a technologist.
- They don’t have all the answers for every system at their fingertips, but the more experience they have, the faster they can generate action. Many times, systems are very complex to diagnose, especially when the hardware, software, and/or connectivity are not standardized or are heavily customized.
- Intra-departmental technology communication is as tricky to foster as department-to-department communication. Highly evolved technology organizations make extensive use of technologies through their service desk software to make sure events revolving around an issue are both memorialized and shared with customers. These systems also help build transparency to problem resolution and allow for the department to be managed from metrics.
- Technologists work in a world of abbreviations, analogies, and theory; it is okay to ask them to explain issues and problems in an easy to understand manner or provide a real-life example.
- Technology is both an art and science; answers are not typically tangible and are very difficult to diagnose.
My experience has shown that problems arise because people outside IT do not understand the personality traits of the average technologist, and they don’t fully comprehend all the serious problems that IT staff are simultaneously trying to solve.
If technologists are treated with respect and trusted to fix the issues within their control, you will have some of the most dedicated, hard-working staff members in modern-day organizations.
How to Work Better with Your Technology Department
Around five years ago, technology became the engine driving organizations rather than the caboose following behind to support it. Today, technology and its services are viewed as an essential tool of modern-day business operations.
The staff who were once holed up in the basement of many organizations are suddenly expected to be able to effectively communicate with stakeholders, participate in marketing meetings, interface with customers, and attend corporate events; all with the same charismatic entrance and gregariousness as traditional “business” talent. I have some breaking news: it is going to take a while for the communication skills within an IT department to catch up with these new and burgeoning expectations.
Technology departments deal with a multitude of issues and are always working to keep systems operational and technology as advanced as possible. One of the biggest challenges for IT departments is that it must not only support itself as a department, but also provide support to every other department. With this massive organizational responsibility comes frustration. While technologists are working diligently to come up with solutions, they can’t solve all the problems all at once, leading to frustration. As a result, many people feel it is difficult to work with technology departments, but I believe there are a few things those outside IT can do to help improve communication and collaboration:
Understand the department is not only there for you. Many IT departments provide support for 10, 20, or even 50 other departments within an organization or municipality. To serve all these interests, technology departments are constantly prioritizing and weighing risk, and working on issues that impact the greatest number of people. If they cannot address your problem or question immediately, there is usually a good reason. However, due to their communication limitations or heavy workload, you may not always know when they will get to your problem. You may need to ask them for an ETA or escalate your issue to a manager.
Work on explaining your needs and not what you want. Technology departments are good at solutions, but poor at implementing systems they have no investment in or understanding about. IT personnel are best used when helping develop a solution that meets your needs, so work to tell them what the problem is and what you need from them without trying to insert what you think you want the system to do.
Troubleshooting is not easy and takes time. There are likely a multitude of factors contributing to your issues, many of which you are not aware of. Sometimes, it’s essential to conduct a thorough evaluation of your system and business processes that feed the system. This can be a time-consuming and highly involved process. Just because a solution worked one time for an organization does not mean it will continue to work. Many systems are not configured correctly and are too heavily customized, which leads to failure.
It’s okay to push the boundaries of technical possibilities. In our highly technological era, it’s expected that many users believe anything is possible with enough time, money, and resources. However, those possibilities can often be overwhelming to IT staff who understand the technological requirements of implementing such ideas. You do not have to take an answer of “it can’t be done” at face value. Technologists work within boundaries, but it’s important for others to challenge both internal and technical staff to be innovative and bring solutions, not more challenges.
Have conversations about Service Level Agreements with your technology department. Service Level Agreements are negotiated, pre-arranged documents between the information technology department and their customer departments. These documents outline details such as expected response times based on the severity of issues, which can help IT managers better staff, plan, and prioritize support according to the expectations of departments.
When new technology is introduced, require your staff to attend training and information sessions. IT departments regularly introduce new technology and, in order for it to operate properly and be effective, all staff need to know how to use it. In my experience, only about 35 percent of staff attend training, of which 25 percent need additional help. Out of the 65 percent who do not attend training, 70 percent end up requesting support, of which 90 percent of the type of support requested was covered in the training. Such requests dilute the IT service desks’ ability to respond to legitimate needs, creates a backlog, and ends up slowing down other assistance that is duly needed. This problem could easily be solved if staff attended the provided training.
There is no doubt that technology will continue to evolve at breakneck speeds changing how organizations operate. Therefore, it is critical to have both constant and effective communication with technology staff. Once barriers, moats, and gorges have been crossed and staff begins to develop a dialog, personnel in all departments can truly work together to improve the operation of the organization.
About the Author: Chris Chiancone is a strategic thought leader with more than 20 years of experience delivering advanced hardware and software solutions for private corporations and public-sector organizations. Programs implemented by Chris and his team help organizations deliver strong technological innovation, helping align industry leaders with a substantial competitive advantage while (or by) focusing on technology transformation, increasing productivity, reducing cost, cloud migration, and organizational security.
Chris has a strong track record of building versatile, top-tier technology teams. His skillset includes strategic planning, technological innovation, IT architecture, applications, security and production with large ERP, cloud providers, ITIL, and data science technologies. To contact the author, email IPSauthor@apus.edu. For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.