It is the most stressful job in the world - that is how one senior IT manager recently summed up his situation. The need to face up to the commercial pressures of the 90s and learn how to treat users as customers has imposed considerable pressure on most corporate IT departments. That reinforces the traditional view that when it comes to change, few can demonstrate greater resistance to the introduction of new working practices.
Although most IT departments operate as cost centres in their own right, colleagues elsewhere persist in seeing them as an obstacle to improved services rather than a facilitator. So why isn't more being done to help IT managers and their teams through these challenging times?
'The situation is best illustrated by a triangle, with the board at the top, users on one side and the specialists in the IT department on the other,' says Mike Ball, associate director at Hoskyns and head of its IT strategy practice.
'However you approach it, there is tension in every corner. Users just don't trust the specialists. The specialists often find that their manager is as much in the dark as they are about forthcoming changes, and at the same time, that manager is having to meet a barrage of user demands.'
At the heart of the problem lies basic communication between the various agencies. Everyone expects the IT department to be the harbinger of change.
Yet by its very nature, it is often staffed by technicians who entered the profession because of their interest in technology.
Introducing them to the communications skills which they require as members of a fully integrated corporate business unit is not usually a task for the faint-hearted, much less a task for an IT manager whose resources are already stretched to the limit.
'Things are getting better,' says Ball. 'But I'm still surprised at how often we get called in because of basic communications problems. IT departments have to understand the business as a whole and tie their functions into business drivers.
'Yes, IT dinosaurs do exist and the only way to bring them into the new world is to try to implant some kind of business perspective into their understanding. If they really can't adapt, you end up having to work around them.'
Verax is a specialist in measuring and managing change throughout the enterprise, down to the level of the individual within each department.
Joint MD Keith Bedingham agreed that one of the main obstacles to change in IT departments is a fundamental difference in understanding.
'IT people deal in a language and with technology that is not easily understood by others. That in itself creates communications problems,' Bedingham says. 'On the other hand, the notion of non-IT people is that if you want a particular solution, you can talk to the IT department until you are blue in the face and end up with either something completely different or nothing at all.'
The big mistake many companies make when trying to introduce change to the IT department is to assume a commitment to change exists without providing sufficient ex- planation. A smooth transition can only be achieved if every member of the department understands the overall goals.
'I can think of one organisation which went for BPRE in a big way, rehashing its product development and manufacturing processes and bringing in top-level consultants,' recalls Bedingham. 'Clearly, the IT group had a major role to play in creating the new information management and manufacturing processes.
'But despite the establishment of research teams and project leaders, senior management pushed ahead without getting the commitment of everybody on the team. As a result, individuals were more concerned about defending their own corners. It nearly sabotaged the whole thing.'
IT staff must be encouraged to think of themselves as part of the internal customer supply chain, according to Bedingham. They have to learn how to meet their users half way, ask them what their problems are and then ask themselves what they can contribute to a likely solution.
By stepping outside their traditional viewpoint, IT staff can be helped to change their own attitudes.
Bedingham suggested that the idea of the intransigent, belligerent IT department is often a result of the imposition of change rather than a mission to be a spanner in the works. 'Individuals must be trained to ask themselves: "How interested am I in helping other people in this company solve their problems?" If pure technology remains their sole interest, conflict is inevitable.
In that case, an IT manager could find that someone with lesser technical skills, but superior communications ability might be more suitable for a particular project,' he says.
'Individual resistance to change comes when people either can't see the need for it in the first place, or are worried that they won't be able to cope with it or that there won't be a role for them in the new model.
'The myth of the resistant IT department arises because IT people don't always understand or deliver the solutions their users want. They give the impression of not listening, but it's more a matter of communication and understanding.'
Perhaps we should also be less ready to consign those previously mentioned IT dinosaurs to the scrap heap. Cynics might say that someone who has been a stalwart member of an IT department for the past 20 years will not be able to bend with the new corporate attitudes that say IT is a service and users are customers. That is to ignore the fact that many of these people will have been quietly servicing their own particular users throughout that time.
Sue Kilford, account manager at consultancy Pink Elephant, which offers core skills training to promote the commercial awareness of IT personnel, says: 'There are those IT staff who are entrenched in their old attitudes, but they have often been looking after their users perfectly well. Now, they have to be introduced to the bigger picture.
Kilford believes traditional methods should not necessarily be thrown out of the window. 'Often, there is no right or wrong when it comes to managing change. It is more a question of what needs to happen now to take the company forward,' she says.
Nevertheless, that process requires establishing some home truths which the modern IT department has no choice but to take on board. IT staff have to face up to commercial realities. They can't fob their users off with technicalities or get away with paying lip service to market forces while carrying on with their existing attitudes.
If they can't meet their customers' requirements, those customers will simply go elsewhere for better service. The very survival of the IT department will fall into doubt. As one IT manager lamented: 'I've either got to change these people or I've got to change these people.' There simply isn't a choice any more.
According to Kilford, it is possible to achieve these changes without causing too much consternation and resentment. 'Involving the user or customer in the change process is a powerful way of introducing new attitudes to the IT department,' she says. Users expect their systems to be reliable, economical, fast and easy to use. A consultation period is essential in establishing those expectations and helping IT staff to clarify them in their own minds. But it is important to understand that excuses are simply not acceptable to today's internal customer.'
But what can senior management do to facilitate change? Tales of the resentment caused by imposed change and lack of consultation are by no means limited to the IT department, but it does seem to bear the brunt.
Should IT managers spend more on training their staff in new attitudes and practices? Ball says that the overall picture is still rather mixed.
'Certainly, we've worked with organisations that see the need to make this kind of investment,' he says. 'You could take the view that you can never spend enough on education. At all events, it is crucial for any competitive organisation to keep its IT department moving ahead.'
Kilford says that investment in developing commercial skills is a key way of helping IT departments to differentiate in terms of the services they offer their customers. 'IT staff still fail to market themselves successfully,' she says. 'They have to take responsibility for the fact that their customers know what's on offer. It is absolutely critical.
'There is still widespread ignorance among users of what IT services can offer them. One company I can think of came to the conclusion that it should produce an IT services portfolio for its users. Six months later, that portfolio still had not materialised because the IT department could not actually decide what services it does offer.
'My personal opinion is that too much time is spent worrying about technology and not enough on managing people.'
Getting the balance right won't simply create a more commercially aware IT department. It could also help reduce the stress levels of harassed IT managers.
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