A little respect

IT departments accept the fact that, to some degree, their job is a thankless task where the less the rest of the staff see of you, the better.

IT departments accept the fact that, to some degree, their job is a thankless task where the less the rest of the staff see of you, the better.

"No news is good news," suggests Leo Henderiks, IT manager for Franklin District Council. IT has to be invisible and general staff "make an assumption everything will be running well" all of the time.

IT departments have their own tactics.

"People think IT is a given and we slyly take things away from them rather than run the system for them," says Matthew Dalton, IT manager of law firm Philips Fox.

"Certainly we have a hard time educating people about the services we run in the IT department. They think it's smoke and mirrors."

But as Network World in the US recently noted: "The more successful you are, the fewer opportunities you have to interact with upper management and gain respect from the business side of the house."

The publication warns that instead of success leading to respect it can instead lead to failure, as a lack of awareness of IT creates difficulties in funding projects that keep operations running safely and securely.

"It's a vicious circle, but one you can break by taking a few simple steps to keep yourself and your organisation's IT needs uppermost in top management's minds."

The first step is communication.

Dalton says his department issues addresses to staff and ensures they are not treated as ignorant newbies. If the system is to go down for a network change or similar event, this is explained. Then, he says, people will know IT is doing its job and will be much more responsive and responsible. If no communication is given, Dalton says people will think the "IT guys don't know what they are doing".

House of Travel stages regular meetings with staff to ensure they know what is happening on a certain project and that they realise the IT crew are doing something.

Continuous communication with senior management meanwhile keep the doors open and the awareness up about how the IT department is delivering value to the total business, says the IT manager of one well-known New Zealand building supplies business who wasn't keen to be named.

Just as important, says Network World, IT should be seen as a service. Many bosses currently see IT as "a grudge spend", something that has to be paid for without really understanding why. IT professionals can sit in their equivalent of the ivory tower and dictate policy, it says, whereas trust and credibility is what is needed.

"If the IT group has provided good service to the business over a range of business issues, then it is more likely to be heard about security concerns," says the building supplies techie.

Third, the business case for projects must be spelt out. Niall White, IT manager of House of Travel, says his organisation focuses on return on investment.

"We don't really focus on intangibles but the tangibles have to stack up first. Then, it goes on 'gut feeling'," White says.

Adds Dalton: "We have to have a rock-solid business case for why we do things and understand the business things and show how IT fits in.

The Wellington-based IT manager of a major transtasman insurance company laments the current attitude: "In economic downturns, the IT department has little hope in getting funding approval for infrastructure enhancements or architecture improvements.

Unless a project can show a positive ROI in the same budget year, forget it. IT costs come under intense scrutiny and the squeeze goes on to do more with less.

"Of late, the IT manager has been pushed down the hierarchical ladder and IT services are becoming more of a part of a wider service unit rather than an individual business entity."

The building supplies IT chief says it is hard to explain in an return-on-investment sense how security spending can be justified, for example.

"I think analysing the risk and evaluating the potential impact on the business shows the downside of what could happen. Then you have to be convincing about what is real and what is hype and just how likely is it to happen. But it is critical to let the business have a say in the level of security it is willing to pay for and to understand the trade off. IT can't make the decision on its own and then expect the money to be available."

Network World suggests IT managers produce weekly reports to managers on what has been done, even down to viruses blocked. Even if there were no problems here, it shows how successful the department has been. It has not been inactive, but has succeeded in preventing the organisation from losing productivity and previous investment money has not been wasted.

Greenwood is Computerworld's human resources reporter. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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