The Covenant: IT Builds Relationships with Business

Since the quality of a company's service is tied to its internal relationships, IT needs to get busy making friends on the business side of the aisle.
Posted September 26, 2005

Sharon Gaudin

The quality of the service a company delivers often is tied up in how well members of the company work together, according to a management consultant.

That means the stronger the relationships between co-workers, the better the company will do. And for IT professionals, it means they better start working on the relationships they have with co-workers on the business side.

''It's all about relationships and partnerships between IT and operations and sales and human resources,'' says Chip Bell, founder of the Chip Bell Group, a management consulting firm based in Gun Barrel, Texas. ''You work on your relationship with your spouse. This is the same kind of thing. You've always got to be working at it.

Bell, who spoke at last week's itSMF Conference in Chicago, says a lot of people, especially those in IT, think business is dry and impersonal. They think it's about getting the job done before 5 p.m. and keeping the trains running.

Actually, it has a lot to do with creating relationships, communicating and thinking of others' needs. And, no, this isn't even an episode of Dr. Phil.

''I think part of it is that we live in a business world that we think is rational and logical,'' Bell said in a one-on-one interview with Datamation. ''If we could get robots to do the work, then it would be logical and rational. But we're people, so everything is unpredictable and emotional. Sometimes we forget that. What's rational about a staff meeting? I've never been to a rational staff meeting. There's innuendo and then there's water cooler talk afterward.''

Steve Wrenn, of IT Service Management at Liberty Mutual, says IT professionals have been pushing for a seat at 'the table' for years now. They want to be involved in decision making and not just taking orders for more laptops and handhelds. To get to that point, they need to have created working one-on-one relationships with co-workers on the business side of the company.

And building those business relationships is an awful lot like building personal relationships -- you've got to know how to keep the other person happy.

''It comes down to knowing how people like to be communicated with,'' says Wrenn. ''But the first step is to sit down with people and say, 'What are you doing? What are your goals? What do you need from me?' ''

Bell says people often have no idea why someone they work with might come off as agitated or even slightly hostile. Often enough, it's because there was some miscommunication that made that person's job that much more difficult. And knowing how to best work with that person, can stop these problems before they start.

Building a Covenant

''You have to form a basis of trust and truth. Establish some agreements,'' says Bell. ''I tell people that the conversation will be awkward to begin with because the other person might think it's crazy. Start out with... 'Remember when you didn't get a call last month and you were upset about that? Well, I didn't know that was going to make you mad. But I should have known that, because we should have talked about it.' You don't have to turn the conversation into therapy or marriage counseling, but let's get to the components that will make it work.''

And those components include knowing if this person likes phone calls over emails. It's also about knowing if she prefers to be updated weekly or daily. Is she busy in the morning so it's best to contact her in the afternoon?

''Take some time to build a covenant with this person,'' says Bell. ''We might be real clear on the deliverables but we don't spend any time on how we communicate. What are the unique things you're coping with that if I knew about I would approach you differently? How fast do you want me to return your phone call? I'm talking about a covenant that is unique to this relationship. What does it take to make this a healthy partnership? That's what's often missing.''

For instance, Bell says he knows that when he's on the road, his wife wants him to call every day. '' I'll do that because I don't want her to worry,'' he says. 'Some of the things that make great relationships work in our personal lives are the same in the business world. It's the heart and soul of relationships.''

Once both people understand how to best connect with each other, then it's time to understand the other person's job. That doesn't mean the IT administrator needs to know how to crunch quarterly numbers and it doesn't mean the CFO needs to know how to install a new blade server.

But you and your partner should understand the pressures that each other is facing, the departments' goals, and what each one is doing to help meet customer needs.

''What are the pressures you're under right now that I need to know about?'' asks Bell. ''What's the key value that I need to know about in your world? If I know that's a key value, I'll be respectful of that and honor it. A key value might be absolute accuracy. I've got to have absolute accuracy. It's a hot button of mine. That says to me if I've got to come down on being on time or being absolutely accurate, I'll know it's best to be 100 percent accurate. Knowing this helps guide our behavior.''

Speaking the Language

But Bell says one of the biggest challenges that IT professionals will have to deal with is the communication gap.

With both IT and business, each has its own language... it's own verbal shorthand. And because of that, each department thinks the other talks in a foreign language and they start to tune the other one out. It also fans the flames of discourse -- IT people often write off business types as bean counters or 'suits' who can't understand the benefits of tech, and business executives think of IT workers as geeks who don't know how to run a business.

What they should be doing, according to industry watchers, is finding common language and bridging the distances between them to better serve the customer.

''When people have a unique language, the other partner might not understand,'' says Bell. ''It's all about incomplete understanding. A little misunderstanding is a prescription for confusion and conflict and contention. Often, it's not about being totally clueless. When we're totally clueless, you'll ask a question. But when you have a partial understanding, you don't tend to say, 'I don't completely understand what you mean. Can you clarify that?' To me, it's the half understanding that is more of a liability in a relationship.

''It's not about learning another language,'' he adds. ''It's about having an open relationship where you invite questions. That is the secret. You've got to say, 'Hey, if you don't completely understand me, you've got to stop me and ask questions.' It's all about the way in which you manage the relationship up front.''

Daniel Casciano, a Carolina area leader in technology and security risk services for Ernst & Young LLP, says miscommunications is a major problem -- and one that's ruined more than one business relationship. For Casciano, mixing business training in with tech training is a key ingredient.

''I think it's pretty pervasive,'' says Casciano. ''This is where IT professionals can make an impact. Get business and soft-skill training. Those who do will be the future leaders, the future CIOs. That's where the opportunity lies.''

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