Jul 01 2006

The Power of Visibility

When you listen to what's really going on, you'll create better IT management opportunities.

Photo: Hot Shots Imaging
Jim Shanks, Executive Vice President, and former CIO of CDW Corp.

Do you listen to what people say? Or do you simply hear them? Your answer will greatly determine how often IT is tapped to solve your organization's business problems.

If you don't think that your organization has problems, particularly where IT might have an impact, then you aren't listening hard enough. The days when sensory-

deprived IT workers could be sequestered in an air-conditioned network operations center are long gone. The need is for proactive — not reactive — IT that understands and helps solve problems for departments throughout the organization.

That requires leaving the data center, figuratively and literally, and spending time with non-IT managers. Digital conversations just don't cut it. When IT fails to truly connect with those line-of-business managers on a regular basis, chances are that IT is working under a false understanding of the organization's needs.

But when you get out, don't mistake collaboration with communication, because there is a crucial difference between the two. Think of collaboration as sharing. When sharing, there's certainly a lot of talking involved, but there's also always an equal measure of listening.

Communication is trickier. It involves sharing, too, but also involves processing the information. It's the difference between simply hearing and truly listening. It's not easy. And for communication to work, IT leaders must model active listening skills, which help to uncover and make visible opportunities to truly improve and resolve business issues. When projects fail, it's usually due to failure of guided communication.

Charles Rapier, director of technology with Ovation Research Group in Highland Park, Ill., wisely notes that most people do try to listen — they're just not well-practiced. "If you're inexperienced, you can sincerely be listening but hearing a different message," he says. "That's because you're anticipating a different message." In other words, people hear what they want to hear.

To overcome that, Rapier follows a three-step process to more effectively communicate his IT projects. He sums it up in the acronym A-I-R: be Attentive, be Investigative and then Regurgitate (or Retort). "I'm not bashful about asking for clarification," he says. If he doesn't understand what someone is saying, or if he feels he is not being understood, he refuses to end the conversation.

Listening, as Rapier and other IT leaders know, is just one communication skill essential for effective IT management. Leaders must do three other things as well: First, they must make it easy for stakeholders to give input — not only about things that are going well, but also about stuff that's not going so well. Second, they've got to centralize and make visible the "actionable" input, so that those who need it can access it. These may include change requests, pricing updates, milestones and flow charts — but they are all based on face-to-face interaction. And lastly, managers and stakeholders must ensure that their collaborative

efforts have been fully communicated and understood by the intended listener.

Do these things, and you will be on your way to solving your organization's business problems and ensure that non-IT managers hear — and listen to — your next IT proposal.

Jim Shanks is executive vice president of CDW Corp., a $6.3 billion technology services firm, and a former CIO.