IT managers becoming champions of change

When she was CIO of Universal Underwriters Group, in Overland Park, Kan., Eileen Strider started each IT staff meeting by taking her employees’ “emotional temperature reading.” Strider, who joined the company in 1993 and left in 1997, and who currently is a principal with Strider & Cline, a Kansas City, Miss.-based IT consultancy, would ask her staff to talk about three things:

* Appreciation: Thanking someone for helping you with a project.

* Complaints: Mentioning something that you’re unhappy about and offering a recommendation.

* Puzzles: Talking about something that was confusing in a memo you received, or a problem you’re trying to solve.

“I’m a big believer in giving people a chance to take responsibility for their piece of change,” Strider said. “They’ll do much better if they have a chance to choose a new direction, rather than just being told what’s going to happen to them.”

Meet the new breed of IT manager: not bashful about articulating IT’s role at the corporate level, but sensitive enough to understand the impact that change can have on employees, and savvy enough to mitigate the effects.

By most accounts, managing change is something most IT managers need to work on. Eighty percent of business line managers rated IT support mediocre to poor during major change initiatives, according to a survey of 205 companies by Loveland, Colo.-based consulting firm ProSci.

IT managers tend to have trouble communicating the impact change will have.

“[IT people] tend to want to say things once and be done with it,” said Sheila Smith, managing partner of Omega Point Consulting, an IT management consulting firm in Winchester, Mass. “Change happens one person at a time. You have to talk to people one-on-one and see every interaction as a chance to influence them to move in a positive direction.”

Smith has seen several IT shops use visual cues to help employees embrace change. She has one client who puts up a poster board with a list of new IT agenda items on it, and employees sign it only when they’re willing to commit to those changes.

“It recognized that people will not all commit on day one,” Smith said.

When Strider took the CIO post at Universal Underwriters, she soon realized big changes were in order. The company’s executives referred to IT as “that other company” — that’s how separate it was. They didn’t know what IT was working on, nor was there a process for prioritizing what IT worked on, Strider recalls.

Soon after she arrived, Strider put business line managers in charge of IT projects. They had to come up with project charters that detailed the business strategy, the scope of the IT requirements, and the budgets. Then she set up a regular executive steering committee meeting, at which these executives had to prioritize among their own projects. None of this sat particularly well with the senior executives, but she persisted, mainly by trying to build bridges to those executives, but also by occasionally using the CEO’s support as a hammer to force them to comply.

“You don’t want to use the hammer too often,” Strider said. “It becomes less effective, and it’s no substitute for building relationships.”

The changes Strider implemented came as a welcome relief to her IT staff members, because they were no longer blamed for things that went wrong. The staffers had to learn to be proactive about taking problems to the line managers instead of waiting for the phone to ring.

“That was very difficult for them,” Strider said, “but I made it clear to them I was there to back them up and would stand up with them, and eventually they understood that.”

Ken Phillips, director of IT for the city of San Jose, Calif., isn’t concerned about how his 200 IT staffers handle change; it’s the internal customers in city government he’s worried about.

“Change is a way of life when you work in IT,” Phillips said.

But other departments, such as accounting or personnel, are much less accustomed to change, and Phillips has learned over the years not to impose technological changes. For instance, the city is working with its police department to have officers use laptops with wireless modems to submit reports. The process isn’t easy because there is a lot of training involved, Phillips said.

IT managers can improve their track record by shifting the emphasis from hardware and software to business problems, said Lisa Kimball, CEO of Caucus Systems, an Arlington, Va.-based company that helps businesses use technology to change the way they do conferencing. Kimball, who consults with IT managers every day, said IT departments tend to focus on infrastructure instead of people and how they collaborate on tasks.

“The best IT people I know hardly ever breathe a word about technology, not because they’re not technologically proficient, but because they’re focused on the company’s dynamics and cultural issues,” Kimball said.

Raths is a Kailua, Hawaii-based freelance writer.