As your employees continue to embrace (and expect) increasingly sophisticated ways of communicating and collaborating on the personal side of their lives, it is more important than ever to find ways to effectively integrate technology-based communication capabilities as part of your core employee engagement and corporate communication strategy.
In our first blog post on this topic, we outlined the format and scope of our “Communication and Technology Insights Blog Series”, developed from our experience working with both communication and IT teams in organizations of all sizes. The blog series also reflects the very interesting discussions we had with conference attendees during the technology forum at the recent IABC Employee Engagement Conference in Denver, Colorado.
In this post we’ll offer some guidance on how to best engage your IT team to ensure effective execution on your corporate communication initiatives. If you haven’t already followed us on Twitter, that is the fastest way to get ongoing blog updates: click here.
Ensuring an IT champion
It’s a new year and you have your sights set on really improving employee engagement and organizational alignment through your communication strategy. You have a set of initiatives that supports the strategy, and many of these initiatives will rely on technology. You and your team are ready to move forward and help your organization realize the benefits of better engagement. As is so often the case, the big unknown in your planning process may be how IT will respond to your initiatives – simply, will they be your champion or a hurdle to your project’s success?
Anyone who has experienced a painful, frictional technology-related initiative rollout knows that IT alignment and buy-in makes a huge difference in how the project goes. It can be a painful reminder that unless you involve your IT team early and often, your project can be relegated to the back burner or worse – IT actively works against the initiative and prevents it from succeeding.
This is not meant to lay blame with IT, but rather to reflect on the reality of so many organizations; too much to do, not enough time to do it. Implementing initiatives without the correct and appropriate level of IT engagement and interaction is a major pitfall of so many organizations. Constant demands from a variety of business departments, conflicting messaging on organization priorities from senior leadership and resource / budget constraints continually force IT teams to make tough decisions, often resulting in your project getting delayed or scrapped.
So how can you ensure that your communication initiative succeeds in light of these challenges? We’ll outline four effective (and complementary) strategies you can employ to improve your chances of working successfully with IT.
1. Communicate your needs to IT – early and often
As corporate communicators it may seem second nature, but it can’t be repeated enough: the earlier in your initiative lifecycle you communicate your initiatives and related technology needs to IT, the better chance you will have of successfully engaging their assistance throughout the process.
Like you, IT needs appropriate planning time to effectively manage the many competing priorities placed on their department. IT teams are often an afterthought in the planning process and by the time they have a chance to learn about your initiative they have already been engaged by other business units with competing priorities. Additionally, communicating early and often gives IT a seat at the table, and they are able to provide unique input and perspective that may result in a better, more integrated technology solution to support the initiative. Without question, IT is a key stakeholder in your technology-related initiatives, and needs to be treated as such. Here are some specific tips for communicating and engaging IT.
Educate IT on your initiative
Take some time to educate IT on your initiative. By doing this early in the process you can ensure several very important things:
- IT is aware of your project and it is on their radar for resource allocation and other important activities to get your solution into production. Lack of IT awareness about your schedule and resource requirements results in roadblocks for you. Clear them proactively.
- IT more clearly understands the nature of your initiative in business terms. When IT understands the business objectives and challenges being addressed, there is a greater sense of alignment of purpose, and IT has more incentive to work with you to deliver a solution that supports those objectives.
- By understanding your initiative, IT is able to in return educate you and your team about any IT standards, policies, procedures, or technology initiatives that may impact your project (positively or negatively). Knowing this information early on is critical to success. Imagine making significant progress on a new mobile communication initiative only to later discover that IT mobile support has been pushed to the following year due to competing priorities. Likewise, imagine focusing on a news portal rollout only to discover that IT recently purchased a 3rd party solution that meets your needs.
Too often, this collaborative educational piece is ignored and the result is often that IT feels disconnected from the spirit of the initiative and is simply being called upon to install, implement, and maintain systems with little or no context or notice.
Communicate user types and channels
As you discuss the initiative with IT, be certain to focus on the types of users you are trying to communicate with, and through which channels you wish to communicate. Whether you are communicating with employees through social channels, mobile devices, web browsers or desktop clients, IT needs to know. Focus on:
- Which users are most important to address early and which can wait? For example, is rollout to managers first an essential component?
- Which channels are the highest priorities? For example, is mobile absolutely critical at launch, or can it be released after a web-based version?
An emphasis on a tiered strategy can get the core of your initiative in place for key audiences and channels even if secondary audiences and channels may have to wait.
Communicate Executive Level Support
Executive level support for your initiative is a very important factor in ensuring that IT champions the effort. Depending on the level of visibility and importance your initiative has with the company’s senior leaders, this can be a very powerful element to discuss with your IT team during the planning process. As mentioned above, use the education meeting to talk to IT about the impact of the initiative to the business, as well as the executive support.
2. Focus on shared value
Your IT team has as much vested interest in your organization’s success as any other department. IT teams are also often looking for opportunities to add value to the business and to optimize their own workload along the way. One strategy for engaging IT and ensuring an IT champion is to focus on shared value so that IT has a sense of the possible benefits to them. Ask yourself the following:
- If the group works together to successfully deliver the initiative, what is the benefit to both teams?
- Is there a larger organizational benefit to be realized through the initiative?
- Will the initiative improve IT’s life in some way? For example, will the initiative eliminate a high cost manual support element that IT currently provides (and loathes)?
At the end of the day, to ensure an IT champion you must first champion the initiative yourself. Sell the initiative to IT. Build consensus around the importance and the potential benefits to both parties. This one strategy can play a major role in building shared purpose and eliminating a wide range of common barriers.
3. Don’t hesitate to ask
To be successful in managing the success of your communication initiative, it is imperative for you to understand the current constraints on IT and how your project fits into their priority queue. As goes the old sales adage: you don’t ask…you don’t get.
In order to be successful it is important to understand the way your IT team thinks and operates, and what drives the pace and timing of their involvement in technology-related initiatives. What do they believe their core mission is as an organization? Is their role to improve cost savings, increase revenue, improve organizational efficiencies or something else? Take the time to understand the value proposition for IT and align your request with that value proposition.
Once you understand the mission of your IT group, the next step is to understand the capabilities, what support they can offer you, what priorities may be potential blocking areas for your initiative, and how will IT help you manage ongoing maintenance and support. This information will empower you to successfully find a compromise to help prioritize your initiative, and ensures that you remain aware of sensitive to IT’s constraints and needs.
Below is a list of questions you should ask IT at the start of each initiative/project:
- Where does you project currently sit on IT’s radar? What is their timeline to support you?
- This is the obvious first question to ask your IT group. Understanding how your project stacks up against other projects and what the expected delivery timeframe for your project is will provide you the insight required to know if you need to push harder for a more time sensitive solution.
- What other departmental priorities are you competing against?
- Ask about other team’s priorities which may be taking a front seat to your project. Understand as much as you can about the business drivers behind those priorities so you know whether your current priority position is appropriate. Also make sure to ask about any internal structures in place to help resolve allocation conflicts caused by these other priorities.
- What current tools does IT offer that may satisfy your needs? Where are the gaps?
- Take the time to learn more about the current solutions offered by your IT group. Do any of those solutions meet your needs for the short term? Where are the gaps in the current offering compared to your needs? Understanding this will help you better position your project if you do need extra support.
- Does IT offer training on existing tools for your team?
- If your IT does have a set of tools in place that may support the initiative, what training capabilities are in place to help you and your team quickly and easily adopt the solutions? Can the IT group help get your team up to speed on the existing solutions in order to empower you to be more self-sufficient? IT teams will often be motivated to provide these kinds of assistance, as they are less costly in terms of time and resource than implementing new solutions to support you.
- What is the IT policy on 3rd party SaaS tools?
- Software as a Services (SaaS) solutions can be a good way to manage your communication initiatives without a significant time or cost investment from IT. If your IT group is open to you investigating 3rd party, externally hosted, software to solve your needs – this may give you the freedom to roll out initiatives without a high level of reliance upon IT. These tools can be a great stop gap measure to solve your immediate needs, and in many cases can be great long-term solutions. Don’t forget to ask about the process for widespread adoption of the SaaS tools across the organization when appropriate.
- Is there an ongoing investment required from IT to support your project?
- Your initiative is one of many that IT is considering. It is important to remember that IT’s role in your initiative does not end when the solution is rolled out to production. With each implemented system, IT’s permanent ongoing support level increases. When looking at the cost and time requirement from IT to support your project make sure to analyze the cost on a long term (5 year) scale. Will there be regular upgrades required to enhance the solution for users? What about ongoing maintenance and bug fixes? How about requirements for integration with external partners and the related security measures? All of this will help you determine if it makes sense to leverage IT or pursue external 3rd party solutions to manage these elements for you and will also help IT clearly understand the real costs associated with your initiative.
Gaining a solid understanding of what you are up against and the capabilities of your IT group is essential for the next step: negotiation.
4. Negotiate a solution
If you find your project is still on the back burner after effectively communicating your project requirements to IT, educating IT about your initiative and its importance to the business, focusing on shared value, and working through a clear understanding of IT’s capabilities and potential blockers, it is time to work on negotiating a solution to help prioritize your project.
Countless articles and books have been written on negotiation tactics, and leveraging those tactics to successfully negotiate can be paramount to the success of your project.
Below are some ideas to help you negotiate prioritization for your project:
Quantify your project in terms of organizational importance
In negotiation it is important to adopt a 30,000 foot view of how your initiative impacts the organization’s success. When budget, time and resources come into the picture you need to find a way to ensure your project has high level organizational visibility to achieve the required priorities. By working with your senior leaders to find organizational support you can bolster your case to IT. This step goes beyond the initial efforts to build consensus around shared value and is focused on quantifying in very specific terms the organizational impact of the initiative.
Work with competing project owners
Outside of senior leadership, finding ways to compromise with other project owners can help increase the chances of speedy adoption for your project. Can you find areas in which you can lighten your requirements on IT if the competing project owner does the same? How do you timelines match, is there any ability to negotiate modifications to the existing schedule? Again, a focus on shared value comes into play, as does championing and selling your initiative to competing initiative owners. If you can convince these colleagues that allowing you to get on IT’s schedule before them has more overall organizational benefit, you may be able to substantially impact the priority of your initiative without more drastic measures such as escalating to executive leadership.
Scale back your project requirements
Is there some amount of functionality you can give up to achieve a quality deliverable from IT without losing the core elements of your project? Can you extend your timeline and be flexible in terms of what gets done when?
The strategies outlined above are designed to help you engage IT in a more productive manner that should help ensure that you have an IT champion and not a hurdle. At the end of the day, IT teams are there to help deliver on your corporate strategy and support the business. By aligning your project with the organization’s mission and IT’s capabilities you will find that your project can get the attention it deserves in the time you expect, and that IT will be a positive, helpful stakeholder along the way. Good luck and happy negotiating.