4 ways for IT to connect better with customers

Top IT shops know having users and IT work together can benefit the business and give IT workers a leg up in their careers

managing business process cycle rotate phases
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If you walk by an IT office these days, the only sounds you're likely to hear are the dull whir of laptop fans and the gentle hum of servers -- barely a warm body to be found. The IT staff is on the loose.

In many cases, IT's first order of business is to get closer to customers. Progressive IT shops are achieving that mission in several different ways. Jamie Cutler believes that embedding IT personnel in business units is the most critical move any IT department can make. "It's the difference between having a technology department that's perceived as a group of guys who run servers" and one that's regarded as "a group of people who are valued as true contributors to the top and bottom lines of a company," says Cutler, CIO at QEP Resources, a Denver-based independent crude oil and natural gas exploration and production company.

IT workers who truly understand the business are better able to design systems to support and advance the organization's mission. And what better way to help IT workers gain that understanding than by bringing them together with the users they serve?

In fact, according to Computerworld's 2015 Careers Survey, IT professionals report that the ability to interact with business colleagues is the top skill outside of technical expertise that will make them more valuable. Here's how leading IT shops model their workflows and business processes to incorporate communication and interaction between IT and its customers, and how that setup benefits the company -- and the careers of IT professionals.

1. Assign IT business partners

At QEP Resources, Cutler has assigned 20 IT employees to serve as "business partners" with each business unit and back-office function. The technical professionals ultimately report to Cutler in IT, but their sole purpose is to solve problems and drive better efficiency for the business unit they partner with -- whether its specialty is drilling, geology or accounting.

Careers 2015: IT's Most Valuable [chart] Computerworld

"We take the people, process, technology approach," Cutler explains. "Can we solve a problem by bringing in smarter people, [devising] new processes or, lastly, improving the technology we have or [adding] new technology?" As his list indicates, he prefers business partners who turn to technical solutions last. The attributes he values most are communication skills and critical thinking capabilities. "If they have those things, I can teach them technology," he adds.

QEP's business partners walk a fine line in their relationships with the business, he says. On one hand, they don't want to be seen as a roadblock or a drag on the process. On the other hand, he doesn't want a business partner to fall victim to a business unit's every demand.

"We call it going native," Cutler says. "If they advocate too much for what the unit wants without thinking about the right solution, that's not the right answer. The right answer is, ‘Let's step back and think about this.'"

Cutler uses scenario coaching to reinforce the idea that "our goal is to help [the business unit] understand there may be a better opportunity to get where they want to go."

The best advice for IT employees who want to take a walk on the business side is to "look for those projects that will give you exposure," Cutler says.

"Tell your manager that you want to learn, and offer to take a portion of your time and get exposure to a business unit to really understand it" while keeping up with your current responsibilities, he explains. "Then ask for some formal training -- classes that help you understand business process development and good communication skills."

2. Create centers of innovation

At University Health Network in Toronto, each of the nine specialty programs in the hospital has its own center of innovation that runs independently of centralized IT, also known as the shared information management services unit.

The transformation began more than a decade ago, when the healthcare organization realized that a central IT unit wasn't the best solution for its needs. For starters, clinical departments needed more innovative systems, and creative clinicians wanted to contribute to the process of developing technical tools.

Meanwhile, the IT department often had 160 projects going on at one time, and its staff was spread thin. "Specialty programs started to build up their own IT expertise largely to fill the niche aspects that central IT was too busy to deal with," says CTO Jim Forbes. "We can't be everything to everyone. So at UHN this model makes sense."

Today, each specialty program includes two to six functional specialists who have backgrounds in IT or project management. UHN has built a governance framework to support IT standards, policies and change management practices for all groups, while giving specialty programs the freedom to develop new technologies and practices.

Each month, representatives of the specialty programs meet with the central IT unit to present their groups' road maps. Central IT then "makes sure they align with our [centralized] road map and that we understand what they're experiencing in the business area," Forbes says.

For instance, the unit that runs the operating room had been requesting an upgrade to its scheduling and booking system. IT was struggling to determine why the change was needed. The group had no functional IT expert at the time. But then network specialist Krishna Bhoutika joined the surgical information systems group. After determining that the OR system was several upgrades behind and would be incompatible with a new hospitalwide initiative to integrate systems, Bhoutika created a road map for getting it done.

Learning the complicated workflow, people and processes of the OR took time. "It was a big learning experience for me when I joined the group," Bhoutika says. On the clinical side, the margin of error is very low because any system problems can directly affect patients, he says.

Bhoutika, who was a software developer for half of his career, says he's working on developing his people skills. "Customer service was never my forte," he explains. "But as you work and develop your skills, you start to see that, to move things forward, you really need to bond with people. That's something I've had to learn over time, and I'm still working on it."

IT employees who want to work on the business side usually get their foot in the door by participating in the governance component of projects or operations. "We have committees set up on just about every project we have," Forbes says. "Individuals get the opportunity to showcase their expertise and knowledge, and the business can make sure there's a fit."

3. Help connect the dots

Cindy Elkins believes that her company has a big competitive advantage when it comes to finding IT employees who want to connect with the business. As vice president and head of IT Americas at Genentech, a South San Francisco-based biotechnology company that develops medications for people with difficult-to-treat diseases, she often hears personal stories from job candidates about how they or a loved one has been affected by a serious disease that Genentech medicines target.

Cindy Elkins, vice president and head of IT Americas, Genentech Genentech

Cindy Elkins

"They want to take their IT skills and literally help people who are helping patients," Elkins says. It's her job to help Genentech's 550 IT employees connect the dots between technology and patients.

One way that Genentech makes this connection is through its annual Full Spectrum IT event, which brings employees face to face with some of the patients who have benefited from Genentech products.

It's not uncommon to see IT staffers tagging along with sales reps who visit physicians to explain Genentech's medications. This gives the techies a chance to see the entire sales process firsthand -- from preparing for the pitch, to dealing with office managers at healthcare facilities, to presenting scientific data to doctors. "That's really a big deal," Elkins says. "We can sit here and build tools in a vacuum, or we can get out there and learn how they do that."

IT employees also regularly visit business units and help their colleagues with day-to-day tasks. An IT business analyst, for instance, recently spent a few weeks processing orders with the order management team to get a better idea of how the technology works for them.

With hands-on knowledge, sometimes they even find that a solution needs to be less, not more. "We can say, ‘I've watched five sales reps do this, and I haven't seen anybody needing that [feature].' And it helps us push back," Elkins explains. She acknowledges that "letting IT out of their box" can sometimes be intimidating to business people, especially at a time when the consumerization of IT is making everyone feel like they're tech-savvy. "That's a challenge," she says. "The bar for the speed of innovation is now set by consumer-facing vendors like Apple, Google, Salesforce.com and others. The business side comes to the table with an experienced point of view. So we're both in each other's yards now, and I think that's bringing up some new conversation" about capabilities and the pace of change.

Elkins advises IT employees who want a seat at the business table to listen more and talk less. "We need to not be on a mission that all of our systems are the right ones or the best ones," she says. "Be prepared to change."

Moreover, "we've got to get out of our techie talk," she adds. "That's always a challenge. We need to be able to push back in even better ways. Use much more of the phrase ‘tell me more' rather than ‘did you know?'"

Elkins also recommends short-term rotations in business units, one- or two-year assignments "or really getting out of IT." Techies have to "see what it's like to be a customer of IT," she says. "Get out of your own stew and take a look at it that way."

4. Hit the shop floor

Connecting with the business is a big deal for IT shops at small companies. At Valco, a manufacturer of farming equipment in New Holland, Pa., IT employees spend 60% of an average week interacting directly with the company's 350 employees in every area of the business.

"There are probably larger places where they can stay in the back room. But in small to midsize companies, you have to be able to interact with the business," says Mark Robinson, director of IT.

Some IT employees work at least a half-day alongside shipping clerks or customer service reps. More informally, Robinson will bring developers and network engineers into meetings with users. For example, IT workers may get to hear about a business problem directly from the source in an initial design meeting. There are also impromptu walkabouts. "It doesn't take much of an excuse to grab our safety glasses and get out on the shop floor," he says.

Mark Robinson, director of IT, Valco

Mark Robinson

The approach has yielded positive results. Through regular interaction with the business, IT has been able to uncover many small improvements in automating or simplifying workflows that add up to big savings.

"Even I have been surprised to hear that some little change we've made is saving 45 minutes a day," Robinson says. "I consider something like that a pretty big win."

These small victories are paying off in an even greater, intangible way: The IT department is building credibility with the rest of the business and IT staffers are regarded as being more approachable than they once were, Robinson says.

Generally, business people now see that IT has more empathy for what they do and what their problems are. Because the two sides now have a rapport, users feel comfortable discussing problems openly instead of complaining about IT in private. That gives IT staffers a chance to do something about problems they might not have known about in the past.

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