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IT Management | Feature

How To Bridge the IT Communication Gap

A little finesse goes a long way in communicating with tech-challenged users — and more important, it can bolster IT's strategic role across the university.

IT communication skills

You've spent hours on the phone with a user whose problem, you finally discover, is nowhere close to what he has been describing to you. Or you've gotten that excited call from a professor who has just learned about "the most amazing technology ever" and wants you to get it for her "immediately." (Never mind that the technology costs a mint or won't actually suit her needs!)

Every IT professional at a higher education institution has had these experiences. It doesn't matter if you're a one-person team at a small community college or part of a massive IT department at a major university.

Failed communication is just one symptom of the chasm that sometimes exists between IT professionals and the faculty, students and administrators they serve. And while it's tempting to blame the user, the truth is it's up to IT to find a way to get the right messages across. "You've got to go to where people stand," exhorted Joanna Young, vice president and CIO at Michigan State University. In other words, put yourself in the user's shoes; listen as much as you talk or fix; and learn how to speak on his terms.

CT asked two seasoned IT leaders for their advice on how to do just that.

Get Used to Openness

Higher education's policy of openness can be a bit of a culture shock compared to the private sector, pointed out Bill Balint, CIO of Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

"By our very nature, we have a more open, shared governance of the user community," he said. "You have to be ready to explain how and why you're doing what you're doing, especially when you're making changes."

In the private sector, for example, an IT leader might only need the buy-in of one person, whoever it is that runs the business unit, to make a change. "At a bank, the manager puts out a memo and says, 'This is the way it's going to be,' and that's the end of the story," Balint noted.

Not so in the higher ed community. There are multiple users with varying levels of autonomy throughout a campus. Often it isn't just a question of what the IT professional says to a particular individual, it's having the emotional intelligence to understand that person's role in the entire organization.

Young drew an even broader picture, citing the increasing consumerization of technology in higher education. "It can lead to a lot of diversity and decentralization," she said, "and higher ed tends to have that as an attribute."

Consequently, it is incumbent on the campus IT leader, Young said, to help each department, unit and individual understand how their technology needs fit in with those of the larger institution.

Explain the Big Picture

When a user comes to IT with the excited "I want to buy product X" demand, "Often," Young said, "the common IT reaction is dismay."

But instead of putting the user on the defensive by jumping straight to all the reasons buying product X would be a mistake, she said, "I coach people to come at it quietly and carefully. Say, 'Why don't you tell me what you want to accomplish?'"

The campus IT leader, she pointed out, is in a unique position in the organization. To a greater extent than almost anybody — maybe even the college president — IT professionals, if they are doing their jobs correctly, know what is going on all over the institution.

"We see it all," Young said, "and we have a responsibility to help the larger organization by showing them how each part works together."

Maybe that user really could use — and afford — that product X he's begging for. But maybe you know of somebody in another part of the campus who is accomplishing the same goal with something else. Maybe there's a non-tech solution to accomplish that goal. That's when those communication and leadership skills come in.

"It's not about bits and bytes a lot of the time," agreed Balint.

Find the Right Level of Communication

IT professionals, noted Balint, "aren't one-size-fits-all. There are certain individuals who perhaps are a little bit more introverted. Maybe what they love to do is solve problems, and not talk about them so much."

Place those people in roles where they might not interact every day with the user community, he recommended. Those with sharper communication skills, place closer to the user.

Then, work tirelessly on what messages you deliver to your community and how: When you are making changes, how verbose do you want to be in your communications? How technical can you get? How many messages do you send out?

"We have a core set in our customer care function that is responsible for any editorial content that goes out," Balint said. "Any training, documentation, news items, whatever. We have people — and sometimes we have focus groups — who help us with it."

Everybody on an IT team — regardless of how much time they spend interacting with the public — should work to communicate better. Balint said IT professionals spend as much time discussing the challenges they have with users as vice versa.

And they know, he said, that "without a user community, they don't need us," so it's important to work together.

Make Sure IT Is Viewed as an Asset

Finally, Balint and Young agreed, it's important for IT leaders to ensure that campus leaders — presidents, deans and department heads — understand the important role the IT team can and should play in the institution.

As devices and technology become more seamless and user-friendly, there is the tendency for non-technical people to forget about them. Users might be unaware that there are technology solutions to their challenges.

For example, pointed out Balint, with higher ed institutions facing budgetary problems and personnel reductions, often technology can be used to automate certain tasks once done by employees. "But maybe the administration just doesn't know that's a possibility," he said.

Always, said Young, "your role should be to frame things in terms of alignment."

In order to both communicate more effectively and be viewed as an asset to the institution, she said, today's IT professional must look for ways to not just fix the user's problem with a laptop or find a forgotten password, but to help solve the challenges of the entire organization.

9 IT Communication Essentials

  • Listen before you talk. Even if you have to count to 10 — twice — find out what the user needs or wants before you start talking.
  • Use the FAQ page on your Web site. You can head off lots of the most common questions this way. Think carefully about how you frame your questions and answers, and then test them with non-technical people before you put them online.
  • Create cheat sheets. Going beyond the FAQ, write up some step-by-step instructions for some of the more common challenges users call with and send them to the users once you've solved their problem — so they can learn how to handle it themselves.
  • Put your most extroverted people in your customer service function. And allow those IT professionals who may be a bit more introverted to work on projects that require less interaction with the public.
  • Don't assume a user is stupid. Lack of a specific knowledge does not equate with lack of intelligence. It's your job to supply the knowledge.
  • Don't just fix, teach. As much as possible, show the user how he can either avoid the same problem again or fix it himself the next time it happens.
  • Stay jargon-free. No A.C.R.O.N.Y.M.S., and if you do use one, define it.
  • Take it step-by-step. And don't leave any steps out when you're walking users through a solution. Don't assume they know to do anything.
  • Above all, don't snicker or roll your eyes. Even if you're on the phone and the caller can't see you. They'll know.
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