Getting the IS message out

For politicians, the key to success is winning the hearts and minds of the voters. Former U.S. president Ronald Reagan was particularly adept at this, using his skills as “The Great Communicator” to get his message across and win the electorate over to his way of thinking. CIOs are not unlike political leaders in that their success depends largely on winning the hearts and minds of users and customers. Those CIOs who take communication seriously are likely to have an easier road to success.

Ken Fitzpatrick is one of those guys. He understands the value of communications, and he has applied that knowledge to help build success in his role as Director, Information Services for steel manufacturer WGI Westman Group Inc. And perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise, but Fitzpatrick is also a politician.

“One thing that really got me focusing on communication was my first stint as a city councillor for the City of Brandon. It helped me understand the importance of communication,” he said. “I have really tried to get information out to the residents of my ward any and every way possible. I’ve tried to use this same philosophy at my ‘paying’ job in IT management as well, and in my new position as President of the Keystone Centre, a Brandon-based convention and recreation centre.”

When Fitzpatrick started with WGI in 2000, he admits that communication was not at the top of his priority list. The first order of business was to get some things done – to prove to the organization that IT could provide efficiencies and improve the company’s operations. At the time, WGI made only very modest use of technology, and enjoyed few of its benefits. In the years since, the company has embraced technology and used it as an enabler, at the inevitable cost of becoming more dependent on it. In the midst of this transition, Fitzpatrick turned his attention to the role of communications in furthering his department’s objectives and stature within the organization.

“Communications really came to the forefront a few years after I joined WGI. In part it was due to my involvement with the CIO Executive Counciland the things I was hearing from other CIOs about improving IT’s effectiveness within the organization,” he said.

“With technology playing a larger role in all of our organizations, communications is becoming a lot more important and CIOs need to take a leadership role in this area. In particular, we need to make sure that we’re telling people what we’re doing for them. This is important even in a traditional business like ours.”

WGI goes lean

Another factor that led to Fitzpatrick’s focus on communications – perhaps the biggest of all – was his involvement with ‘lean’ manufacturing. Lean is a process management philosophy, largely based on the Toyota Production System, which focuses on the reduction of seven key areas of waste, as well as on the improvement of flow.

When the Canadian dollar started rising in the early 2000s, manufacturers began to worry that if the trend continued, their companies wouldn’t be able to compete. This prompted many firms to start adopting lean techniques.

“At the time, people were coming to the technology department and saying, ‘We’ve got a problem here. Can you write something for us to fix it?’” said Fitzpatrick. “But it was clear to me that you can’t write a system to fix a process problem. All you’re going to do is end up with a computerized problem.”

Recognizing that he had to address process problems at their root, Fitzpatrick started to research lean manufacturing, visiting some businesses in the area that were already doing it. He soon became a strong proponent of the approach, and he eventually became the company’s representative in a lean consortium that was formed by several businesses in Winnipeg and Brandon.

“That’s when the light really went on for me around communications,” he said. “When you implement lean, you need the employees to come forward and tell you how processes can be made simpler. If you don’t have their buy-in, they’ll eventually go back to the way they were doing things before. So you really have to have their trust, and good two-way communications is essential.”

Working on lean gave Fitzpatrick the opportunity to learn a lot more about the business – how it functions, how the processes work and how they can be simplified without bringing in technology. It was a real eye opener for him because it involved changing the culture of the organization.

“One of the reasons why lean fails is because it’s implemented as a program,” he noted. “Lean is not a program, it’s a culture. You have to embrace it, you have to believe in it, and you have to live it. If it’s something that you bring in just to fix a problem, it’s not going to work.”

Fitzpatrick did bring in lean successfully to WGI’s Behlen Industries, the country’s largest manufacturer of steel building systems. Since its introduction, there have been significant improvements in processes and paybacks, and morale has also improved. There’s more trust and better communication between management and the people on the plant floor – to the point where the company’s president now walks the plant on a daily basis.

The whole experience made a strong and positive impact on Fitzpatrick. “My involvement with lean made it clear to me that one of the most important things we can do as IT leaders is improve communications between IS and the rest of the organization,” he said. “If you don’t, things won’t run as effectively and as efficiently as they possibly can.”

Building the BRIDGE Towards that end, Fitzpatrick has formalized an Information Services communications strategy which he has dubbed BRIDGE, which takes its name from the six key elements listed below:

?BUSINESS: Developing a diverse set of methods to obtain feedback and ideas from the business that will be of great value to both the WGI companies and IS.

?REPORTS: Producing monthly and annual updates on the progress being made on IS projects.

?INFORM: Ensuring that WGI companies are informed and current as to new undertakings, changes and developments within IS.

?DOCUMENTATION: Producing readily available reference material to all employees, including an ‘always available’ manual

?GUIDANCE: Publishing an IS action plan and providing staff – especially new employees – with a guide to the direction of the IS department.

? EDUCATION: Training and educating users so that they will have the ability to use technology tools to their full potential What follows is a closer look at each of the six elements.

Business The communication strategy places the utmost importance on communication with the business. Recognizing that interacting with WGI’s various companies is vital to the success of the IS department, Fitzpatrick has implemented several bi-directional communications initiatives that act as a doorway to feedback, ideas and input from users.

An important part of the business focus is a rigorous schedule of visits to each of the organization’s 22 offices, arranged in accordance with the preferences of the individual companies.

“We try to visit our offices as often as possible, but some of them are fairly remote, so you can’t just go there on a whim,” he said. “We’ve put up a large map (see above) with all of our locations across Canada and the U.S., and we mark our scheduled visits on it. If we aren’t able to visit an office, its colour changes, which reinforces our need to get there. It’s a visual aid that helps us ensure that we’re keeping up with our commitments for face-to-face communications across the organization.”

The implementation of strategic planning committees has been another key means of fostering communications with the business. System committees help determine future IS directions for the organization, while department committees provide feedback on processes and help determine future directions in the departmental areas.

“I intend to start pushing strategic planning committees a lot more,” noted Fitzpatrick. “I plan to set up meetings between production and shipping and sales so that we, as a group, start talking more amongst ourselves. That will give us a better view of where the business wants and needs to go in these areas.” Fitzpatrick also uses a company-wide survey to help measure the success of the department and obtain feedback. Concerns are addressed as soon as possible after the survey, and follow-up is done with the individuals who expressed them. The survey also acts as a foundation for future action plans.

Reports Reports may seem like routine stuff, but they’re easy to overlook.

“In the past we did a really good job of doing things, but we didn’t do a good job of telling anybody,” said Fitzpatrick. “I’ve always done a budget, but I didn’t do annual updates. I now realize their importance. You’ve got let people know what you did for them last year and what you’re going to be doing for them next year. You’ve got to create awareness of the advances in your department.”

Producing annual, monthly and sometimes weekly or biweekly reports is now part of WGI’s communications strategy. “What I’m looking at doing in the future is allowing people to subscribe to information. I don’t want to force it on anybody. If they want something, we’ll let them subscribe to it and then we’ll send it to them.”

Inform The communications strategy includes a variety of approaches for keeping WGI employees informed and current with respect to happenings and changes in the IS department.

For example, intranet newsgroups have been designed to provide information and announcements to subscribers. All employees have access to the firm’s newsgroup and are automatically signed up to the local office’s newsgroup and any other that would benefit them. Information is also available for download, such as documents outlining processes and policies. Employees who want to find out about projects can check out the intranet or the IS newsletter, where task lists provide on-going access to project information and status. The IS newsletter also posts articles related to new projects.

Within the various WGI companies, select individuals with the ability to identify the needs of the division serve as liaisons between the division and IS. These liaisons are informed of new tools and applications, and communicate the value of these resources to people in the division who may have an interest in them.

Documentation Fitzpatrick understands that proper and readily available system documentation is an important part of the communication process. Towards that end, WGI’s help systems offer an “always available” manual that can be accessed from within the internal software programs.

An electronic IS newsletter is also used to assist the documentation process. It contains such things as virus warnings, how-to articles, available resources, security advice and a host of other information. Fitzpatrick is planning to introduce a paper newsletter as well.

Guidance In the WGI communications strategy, guidance means providing users – and in particular, new employees – with an understandable breakdown of IS plans and a guide to the future direction of the department.

Guidance includes IS’s action plan, developed in response to the employee survey, and the preparation of starter kits, entitled “Meet Information Services”, informing employees about the IS department: who the people are, what the department operates, and what it can do. Process and policies are distributed through this package as well.

Education Training is an essential element of the communications plan, providing all of WGI’s employees with the ability to use technology-related tools to their full potential. WGI’s technology is largely custom-developed, and to enhance users’ knowledge of it, the IS department has developed a library of available software applications which serves as an introduction to existing software, informs users as to what is available and how the technology might be of service to them. IS also provides training sessions in the form of short overviews and in-depth seminars, which can be taken in person or online. “We’re using a lot of WebEx now and we’re looking at bringing video conferencing in to some of our locations to further facilitate training,” said Fitzpatrick.

Tearing down the walls

Fitzpatrick is well aware that good communications starts at home. And in this regard, he hasn’t neglected his own department. IS has an internal communication plan that includes two month goal reviews for IS staff, weekly department meetings, monthly group meetings, and internal surveys.

But perhaps even more important is his open office environment, an idea he happily admits stealing. On a visit to IBM in Winnipeg, he noticed that they didn’t have offices, just cubicles and meeting rooms. He took the idea a step further, removing the cubicles. Now, both support and development staff share the same area, separated only by three-foot partitions. Not even Fitzpatrick has an office.

“I really like the concept of not having walls in your office,” he said. “There are already enough walls that go up between individuals; putting up more walls and more doors between them really stops the communication from flowing. What I want to do is get people talking.”

Changing viewpoint

As he’s gained more experience with communications, Fitzpatrick has changed his way of thinking about it. “There will always be people who don’t pay attention to all of your communications efforts,” he said. “And the 180 degree turn I’ve done is to focus on the positive rather than the negative. One of our recent surveys had a 70 percent hit rate. Before I would focus on the 30 percent that didn’t answer. Now my view is that we’ll work on the 30 percent next time. Today, let’s celebrate the 70 percent who responded.” Sounds like good advice. After all, 70 percent will get you elected every time.

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David Carey is a veteran technology journalist based in Toronto. He is editor of CIO Canada.

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