By Laura Haight
Originally published as The Digital Maven in Upstate Business Journal
A subject line in my email recently caught my eye: “How to Explain IT to End Users.”
That strikes me as a false premise. In reality, IT doesn’t need to teach users more about technology, but more likely to learn more about users and their company’s business.
As a VP of IT, my staff knew I would be ballistic if I heard anyone manning the help desk tell a user “It works for me.” Who cares? It must work for them. And it doesn’t matter if they don’t understand the basics of internet addressing or troubleshooting. That is not their job. Their job is accounting, sales, product development, marketing.
What technical programs routinely get wrong is not training on business communication. And it’s businesses that are left at risk when these skills are neglected.
The purpose of this column since its inception has been to help articulate technology concepts, information, and developments to a non-technical audience of business executives. I am better equipped to do that because I am not a trained technologist. I was a very good user and communicator with executive experience outside of IT. In fact, one of my roles as a senior manager at the corporate headquarters of a Fortune 500 company was to run our IT Executive Development program. Essentially teaching technologists how to relate to their executive colleagues and manage a business full of non-techies.
This is not to say that employees at a marketing firm or manufacturing company don’t need to understand technology. That’s an imperative for all of us. But they don’t need to understand the how and why in order to grasp the what. What are the risks? What do I need to do to mitigate them? What do I need to know to make this tech work for me?
What’s a tech staffer to do?
— Get out of the data center. ‘Management by walking around’ has been a thing for decades, but it’s not exactly in the mainstream for a lot of tech staff. You will be surprised what you can learn by talking to your users and seeing how they do things (guaranteed there will be some big differences from what you think they are doing).
— Stop doing what users ask for. And start asking them what they are trying to accomplish. Too often tech staff - particularly programmers - slavishly follow instructions. The user says they need a program that does x, y, z, so we write one. Step One needs to be finding out what they need to do, then to deploy the right tool, system or program. In addition, you will gain important information and a chance to work with another department.
— Develop situational awareness. Technology is a central gear in any business. There’s almost no goal that can be accomplished or fulfilled without the involvement of technology. But silos are hard to break down. While CIOs and VPs are routinely part of the management team, information about plans, programs, changes in other departments may not always trickle down. Execs may feel that staff aren’t really interested. But that is selling them short and cutting off a professional growth lane for them.
— Become a liaison to different departments. Attending staff and project meetings of other departments can have multiple advantages: IT becomes a partner, assigned staffers get a sense of ownership and responsibility for projects, technologists learn about the business and, most importantly, how to communicate business issues to IT and IT issues to the business.
As a function integral to the success of almost every business, leaders have an obligation to help tech staff to see the bigger picture, to develop a deeper understanding of how their technologies are used, and to learn business and communication skills that will help those with aspirations to get ahead as business leaders not just higher level techies.