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What did you want to be when you grew up? I wanted to be an ambulance tech and the kids I hung out with wanted to be actresses or explorers or veterinarians. Maybe there was one who wanted to build computer games, but IT didn’t really factor into our career plans. I didn’t even know that ‘IT Manager’ was a possible job.
Now, it’s what I spend my days doing.
It’s not just children who don’t know what an IT manager does. If you have that as your job title as an adult, many of your colleagues won’t understand or appreciate what the role involves.
As IT managers, that gives us a constant communication problem. How do we frame what we do in words that make sense to the Head of Marketing? How do we explain to our peers the value of IT and the critical roles that we play?
Traditionally, IT has been a dark art, but with the advent of the cloud and increasing focus on business solutions rather than IT solutions, we have to get better at talking about what we do.
Watch your language
One of the rookie mistakes about communicating with colleagues about our role in the company is to make the distinction between IT and ‘the business’.
I’ve often heard IT people from all disciplines say things like: “In IT, we support the business.” Well, IT is one department in the business. It’s not a separate entity hanging outside the rest of the company, even if you outsource IT to a third party. IT and ‘the business’ are the same thing: without ‘the business’ there is no need for an IT department, and the other teams couldn’t function without IT.
One way to break down artificial barriers between IT and other teams is to start using language that is more inclusive. If you need to talk about departments outside IT, talk about ‘the rest of the business’.
“The key for any IT manager is to realize that their primary focus is to serve the business and its customers,” says J. Lance Reese, President of Idaho-based consulting firm Silver Peak Consulting, Inc. “IT is not a technology organization, it is a business unit the same as sales, marketing, finance, R&D, and so on.”
Once you’ve got that distinction clear, you can think about how you approach other people to explain your role as an IT manager.
Getting the message across
“Most business managers today are fairly switched on about IT, but often they don’t understand as much as they think they do,” says Marc O’Brien, Chief Information Officer at The Hyde Group, one of England's largest providers of social housing and support services.
“I usually explain what IT managers do in functional terms, e.g. Bill looks after the mail service. It gets more difficult when Bill looks after the middleware! If the explanation draws blank looks I tend to go for car analogies – I don’t know why, but people seem to understand the notion of Total Cost of Ownership about a car but not an IT system.”
Different audiences will need different types of communication, and explanations tailored to different aspects of your job.
“The board cares about revenues, profits, and long term viability,” says Reese. “Technology is a key component for competitive advantage, opening new markets, and creating an agile infrastructure that can adapt to ever changing competitive sectors and challenges. Any manager talking to the board should be explaining how their technologists are focused on creating business results and developing business solutions, increasing revenues, profits, and growth.”
A team leader in the customer services department will most likely glaze over if you start talking about competitive sectors and agile infrastructure. You’ll need to take a different approach when explaining the value of IT to junior business colleagues.
“IT can help them be successful by providing critical strategic information and creating tools that allow the manager to focus on her team to accomplish business objectives,” says Reese. “Technology is a tool and methodology to enhance business results and facilitate growth.”
Be clear on what you actually do
It’s hard to get your message across effectively if you don’t really understand it yourself. The first step in any good communication campaign is to be clear about the message, and talking to your colleagues over coffee about what you do all day is no different.
“An IT manager should play a strategic role and be a driver of the company,” says Robert Dickey, President of Sapphire Technologies, one of the ten largest IT staffing companies in the U.S. “The role of an IT manager within an organization is to ultimately identify and bring forth technology infrastructure and solutions in order to propel their organization forward.”
Dickey believes that the overall job includes spending time working out how to make the organization more effective through better use of technology. “Additionally, IT managers consult and suggest ideas to enhance and to further develop their organization from a technical standpoint based on their understanding of the business acumen,” he adds. “The IT manager should position themselves as a partner with an overall goal of using their technological know-how and applying it to the needs of the business.”
O’Brien believes that IT managers have two roles to play in the company: “They undertake a functional role with all of the associated accountabilities, e.g. looking after the Exchange service, and they have the same role as any other manager in the business, with a clear accountability of looking after all aspects of the business.”
Focus on the services you offer
“An IT department should prove to be a valuable partner to the leaders within a company and align with the overall strategy of the business plan,” says Dickey. “Some of the goals of the group should include efficiencies of scale, technology innovations and advancements, solutions to propel the business forward in to the future, and to explore and identify creative ways to support the organization.”
O’Brien agrees. “So often IT professionals are process-led internalizers. I want them to get out more and bring back what they find!”
However, there isn’t much point in having a department that focuses on creativity and technological advancements if customers are complaining that the website is always down. Underpinning all that strategic stuff is the work that IT departments do to keep the whole enterprise ticking over.
“I think the key thing is seamless service – everything should just work,” says O’Brien. “I expect service delivery to be an IT manager’s prime accountability. You can’t discuss a future strategy if the printers don’t work.”
Focus on business value
As well as articulating the services you can offer colleagues and the company as an IT manager, it often helps to explain things in terms of the value that they can bring.
“IT carries intrinsic and often unrecognized value in any organization that leverages it properly,” says Reese. “Good IT managers develop relationships with key business leaders. Too often IT leaders are unable to articulate their value as business leaders. Every IT manager should make business acumen their top priority. Great technologists can be found anywhere; great technologists who focus on business results are rare and valuable.”
Business acumen will also set you apart from colleagues who do not have this detailed level of understanding about the organization. It can make the difference between safeguarding the IT budget and having to take cuts in the next financial year. If executives don’t understand the value that IT brings, why would they continue to fund it?
“Careers in IT are going through a huge change at the moment and all IT staff have to come to terms with the challenges ahead,” says O’Brien. “The commoditization of processing power means that you can get it anywhere, cheaply and reliably. The technological convergence of devices means that there is now always more than one solution.
“Who you are and how you interact with people matters now in IT more than it ever did before. The IT manager is now more like an expert client than expert solution provider.”
Create an elevator pitch
So how do you take all of that and turn it into a couple of phrases to explain what you do for the next time you are standing next to someone at the coffee machine? The elevator pitch is a short answer to a question, so called as you can deliver it in the time it takes to go between floors in the elevator. Prepare one for yourself, so that next time someone asks you: “What’s your job again?” you have your response thought out.
Dickey has this as a suggestion: “As an IT manager, I hope to bring business insight coupled with technical capabilities as my biggest contribution to the table. My talents go beyond the technical, offering softer skills and business acumen that are equally important in today’s industry. My number one objective is to provide recommendations to further innovation and achievement based on my technology understanding and my company’s business plan.”
Reese suggests including the fact you add to the top line by generating strategic and competitive advantages along with enabling new market opportunities, and to the bottom line by creating operational efficiencies and cost savings throughout the organization.
He also suggests pointing out how you work with other teams by “facilitating global inter-departmental collaboration and communication, helping business units take advantage of strategic global economies of scale and scope,” and being “a catalyst for change, enabling organizational agility to respond to rapidly changing market conditions.”
All of that sounds much more long-winded than: “I’m an ambulance tech.” Try out a few short phrases and find something that works for you and your company. “My advice is to be professionally enthusiastic and focus on the business benefits of what you do,” says O’Brien. “It’s not about the technology.”