Softly-softly approach breeds project success

Consultation and communication are vital when implementing IT initiatives

Repeated efforts at US insurer Nationwide Mutual to try Linux on the mainframe faced internal opposition, some of it from IT employees worried that mainframe-based server consolidation would be a threat to their jobs. They “fought tooth and nail to keep it from happening”, says James Vincent, a mainframe systems engineering consultant at the company.

But their resistance taught Vincent a lesson that he put to good use after the Linux project was finally approved in 2005. Part of Vincent’s job involved working with the employees who had feared the project, including IT staffers who worked on Unix systems.

“At first blush, they feel you are taking away their jobs from them,” Vincent said at the recent Share IBM user group conference in Tampa, Florida. But as a result of the earlier battles, he developed a better sense of the concerns that the Linux opponents had. With “kinder words”, he helped convince them “that this is the right path to take”.

The experience that Vincent gained is an example of what Share speaker George D’Iorio called “soft skills” — a term he used to describe the abilities needed for tasks such as developing effective relationships with co-workers and vendors, and running meetings.

D’Iorio manages the enterprise server team at a large retailer. He also conducts training sessions, such as one called “Getting Your Message Across”.

“Effective communication is a necessary skill in any kind of leadership, whether technical leadership or people leadership,” he says. “And I think sometimes the professional skills [in IT] are so much focused on the technology that the other soft skills get overshadowed.”

D’Iorio thinks that developing better interpersonal skills within an IT operation can help improve its productivity and efficiency. He says that one thing his employer does to help sharpen such skills is hold “lunch and learns”, where various IT workers give presentations about a particular aspect of their jobs or a project that they’re involved in.

Effective communication is something Donald Woodruff, an IT consultant at utility company National Grid USA, tries to practise on the job. He says one technique he uses is to establish “checkpoints”, which involves periodically making sure that the person he’s explaining a technical concept to understands it before advancing the discussion.

“One of the most difficult issues for technical people is communication,” he says.

“You need to be able to talk at all different levels. You aren’t just talking in a peer relationship, engineer to engineer. You have to be able to explain yourself.”

Nationwide Mutual began running Linux-based applications on the mainframe a year ago and currently has about 1,500 in place. This is helping check the growth of the insurer’s installed base of 6,000-plus servers, and allowing savings of about US$15 million (NZ$21 million) over three years.

In addition, the Unix group has become more comfortable with the IT changes, according to James Vincent, and has reached the point where Nationwide’s Unix and mainframe staffers “are now part of the Linux/Unix team”.

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