Overcoming that Utility Feeling

Professionals in the IT world have a tough job. Living between a rock and a hard place on a day-to-day basis, it’s the kind of environment where you usually get bad news when the phone rings. Nobody ever calls the helpdesk line to report the network’s performing really well today, and thanks for doing a great job.

Unfortunately, many end users view IT services as the corporate equivalent to utilities, such as phone or electric service. The support model is similar, especially when things go wrong. The utility company sells a service to the customer; the customer pays his or her bill. When service is interrupted you call, and the faceless, monolithic utility fixes it. Sound familiar?

If you work in a corporate IT department, you probably don’t have a pay-for-service environment. But face it, that’s why you work there. Unless your company’s product is computer services, IT usually ends up on the expense side of the equation -- just like accounting, human resources and marketing. In most companies, the employees who create and make the product and those who put dollars into the company’s bottom line carry the most weight with management.

So does this reduce the IT department to an in-house utility? The answer is yes, but only if you choose to let it be that way. If you want your department to be more than a service utility, it will take extra effort. Even if you don’t have buy-in from IT management, individuals can expand their knowledge in areas that will benefit the IT department through interaction with end users.

Here are some ways to achieve this goal:

Take interest in the company’s core business. The more you know about the company’s primary mission, the better you’re going to be able to help the company achieve its goals. I’ve met IT professionals who distanced themselves from their company’s core business. When it comes time to make application selections, they find themselves uninformed and ill-equipped to make smart choices in sync with business requirements.

View end users as people trying to get a job done, not as technically inept nuisances. The rank-and-file users in your company can tell you more about what they need to get their jobs done than anyone else, including their managers. When was the last time you wandered through the operational departments to ask users how they are doing and how their systems are or are not serving their needs?

Involve end users in the IT decision-making process. Create a user advisory board that can provide you with representative feedback. This group may even be willing to take ownership of technology or product evaluations that could solve business problems they’re struggling to overcome -- offloading that work from @@Iyour@@SR desk. I wish the phone company would ask me what I like and dislike most about the service it provides to my home, but monolithic entities don’t want feedback from customers.

Proactively educate end users. This sounds simple, but many companies fall flat here. Even experienced users want to find new ways to make their job easier. This venue could also be used to educate users on everything from understanding and preventing the spread of computer viruses, to applying policies on Internet and e-mail usage, to long-term network infrastructure upgrade plans. Make sure explanations use layman’s terms and identify tangible benefits that the end users will see. Nobody is interested, you say? Try supplying a few pizzas and turn the process into an informal Q&A discussion over lunch.

Recruit local area experts. Every company has users that excel at using certain applications. These individuals are especially valuable. They not only know the applications well, but they also know how users can leverage the tools to do their jobs better. Tap these people for their expertise, and put them to work for the IT department on an informal basis. You may need to compensate them with perks, such as more frequent software or hardware upgrades, but the trade-off will be beneficial to both the company and to the IT department.

None of these initiatives come without a little effort on the part of the IT department. But investing the energy to reach out to your co-workers in other departments will have a long-term positive impact on the success of your company at leveraging technology. One of the greatest benefits is that the IT department will build a better image for itself as a group of hard-working individuals that are doing their best to make every day uneventful from a computing perspective -- not that of a monolithic utility that does what it’s paid for and no more.