[Note: This article was originally posted to Mental Effort on January 19, 2015.]
Gustave Flaubert was a nineteenth century French author who is considered by many to have created the style of the modern novel. As the New York Times literary critic, James Woods, put it, "Novelists should thank Flaubert the way poets thank spring; it all begins again with him." Flaubert painstakingly depicts his characters with precise and lean descriptions. His works, like Madame Bovary, are highly referenced examples of Realism. Maybe you've never heard of him, however I bet you know one of his famous quotes:
"There is no truth. There is only perception."
Of course we all create and have a library of perceptions, mental images based on our senses, about the world around us. Sensory information, in a sense (pun intended), are simply data. Data which doesn't have a natural right or wrong associated with it. We form perceptions by combining both our sensory data and the experiences and knowledge we have about a particular subject.
For example, you've likely seen, on occasion, a moon that looks big and orange just above the horizon. Now, we know that the moon didn't actually grow, and that this largeness is an optical illusion. The red & orange color is due to the filtering of blue light from the thicker parts of the atmosphere which are located closer to the horizon.
But what if we didn't have today's modern science and understanding of atmospheres, orbits, and different wavelengths of light? We might think that the moon suddenly grew and turned a frightening shade of blood orange. Our observations would be the only data we have about the moon and our perceptions would be set. If this were the case, we would have created a misconception about the moon, a view that is incorrect because it is based on a faulty understanding.
Misconceptions are the subject of today's third part of my series on IT business transformation. We'll explore this question:
What perceptions of technology do business leaders make that lead to misconceptions of IT services and staff?
As a technologist you have experience and knowledge that business leaders in other areas won't. What you perceive when merging your observations with this knowledge may be vastly different than the perceptions that others form about your work. You have to translate your experience into language that the uninitiated will understand and care about. Others have not chosen your specialty, so they may not be naturally inclined to be curious about technology, to want to know the why, or to even "hear" what it is your saying unless you speak in their terms.
Stated simply, you have to stop talking about technology. Instead speak in terms that matter to your audience, to truly change perceptions.
Here I want to make an important and maybe obvious point. On occasion I've found that the misconception lies with me, and not the other way around. If my team is hard to work with, or has a habit of saying "no", the lens of "misconception" just might be reversed and introspection would be in order. You shouldn't expect other leaders to take the lead to point this out to you, after all they have been by giving you feedback all along, haven't they?
By way of example, let's take a look at two common areas of misconception: cost and transparency. I'll offer a scenario, talk about the likely misconceptions, and offer ideas on how to turn the conversation toward IT Value.
Your IT costs are allocated back to a business unit, showing up on a P&L as single lump sum.
IT is seen as expensive, uncontrollable, and adding little value.
IT is a tax on the business.
The message you should receive
Business leaders don't know what specific value you bring, they don't understand their consumption of your services, and they often see marketing from external companies with little on this front from you.
Dig into the details of what is truly represented in this allocation. Do you understand it, does it make sense to you? Take financial accountability of your costs and how they are reflected to the business units.
Reaffirm and validate the rules that govern allocation. Are they arbitrary or based on data?
Consider grouping the allocations into more specific categories from the services you provide (servers, storage, customer support, etc…) versus a single number.
Provide operational and consumption based metrics in addition to the financials.
Sit down with each product GM and have them describe their business to you and how they think IT supports their cause.
Arm yourself with the risks, road map, and upside of the business meeting their goals.
Use all of this data to establish monthly business problem solving sessions where IT is a partner and part of the culture.
Lack of Transparency
IT is late to learn of new product and service offerings. Much IT work feels reactionary versus planned. Little to no strategic planning is done with the IT department.
IT is a supplier, providing only tactical services. IT is a black box, what do they even do all day long?
IT is a bottleneck, not flexible enough, and slowing my business down.
The message you should receive
Business leaders see you as ticket takers, waiting for direction from them. They see you as a vendor, not a partner. Vendors are there to brow beat, partners play on the same team.
Business leaders don't understand the technical risks of their decisions.
Define a service catalog, market the value you bring. Rinse and repeat the marketing.
Talk about risk prevention and the insurance policy of an on-call team, Network Operations Center, or penetration testing of your services.
While supplying compute, storage, and network is essential, turn the dialog to the higher order services you do as part of solving a business problem. Don't lead with hardware configuration and speeds and feeds.
Likely flexibility comments are really about not having visibility into the workload of the IT department. Determine how to make this visible, catalog all tickets in a queue, categorize them, ask for help setting priorities with your peer business leads. Oh, and market that you have this visible display, often.
Create a forum (newsletter, blog post, lunch and learn sessions) to talk about the big things you are doing that will improve efficiencies, limit risk, save money, and enable better products and services.
Remember, IT is a strategic weapon and creates value for the company.
These tactics are examples of the types of actions you should have in your IT roadmap to create positive perceptions of your organization. You want to turn emotion led decisions into data-driven decisions. The next time you hear feedback from your peers in the company, try to empathize and figure out why they feel that way. Only one of two outcomes is possible:
- They've got it right and you have work to do to address the feedback,
- They've got it wrong, and you have work to do to address the misconception.
Ignoring the feedback will further strengthen the observations and lead to more heavily entrenched feelings toward IT, more pressure on IT budgets, and over time erode the support you need to be transformational.
Next, in part 4 in this series, I’ll explain why building a complete IT financial model is the right first step in beginning this transformational journey.
In a twelve part series about IT business transformation, James explores the need for the modern technology leader to be a catalyst for change, leverage IT value as a corporate strategic weapon, and lead the way for complete financial transparency. Utilizing this approach, today's technology leader can provide the foundation for the company to build better products and services and gain approval for technology led initiatives that often struggle for executive support and funding.