If People Won't Meet You Halfway, Tell Them What's in it for Them
By Robert Fort, CIO, Virgin Entertainment Group
In talking with my IT staff about technology, I often give the example of the first caveman who mastered the use of fire. It's unlikely that he did it in order to be known among his peers as the inventor of fire. Most probably, he wanted to be warm. He may even have had a sense that cooked food was healthier than raw food, and that fire could help him be stronger and more productive than the other cavemen. He wanted his life to be easier.
But it wasn't the fire that did this—it's what fire could help him to achieve beyond just keeping him warm.
See the connection to technology? Technology is also an enabler. IT needs to understand that the focus in not about the technology itself; it's about how technology changes what we do and how we do it.
I was in a meeting once with my company's chief executive officer (CEO) and a development guy who had created a portal for internal communications. The CEO kept asking what we could do with the portal, and this guy kept selling the technology, not the capability. He couldn't carry the conversation through to its conclusion. He couldn't answer the essential question for the CEO, which was, 'How does it help me?'
To be effective, we in IT need to think through the solution, not just to the solution. We have to think ahead to the point when technology gets assimilated into the business process and affects the lives of the people who are using it. For IT to be part of the business—something it has been trying to do for decades—it has to think about and show how technology becomes embedded in the process. That's the only way that business units will begin to see IT as more valuable.
Of course, it would be wonderful if the business met us halfway. A user once said to me, "You IT people think you know it all." I was going to protest, but then I said, "Yes, we do. I spend half my day learning all there is to know about technology and the ways in which it's changing, and then I spend the other half of the day learning your job." She laughed, but it's true.
Being in IT is not an easy job. We have to know systems. We have to know about designing for power, redundancy, and uptime. We have to understand programming languages and the Web, and then we have to go further to see things in a business context. The person in accounting isn't going to understand Adobe Dreamweaver or Microsoft's Internet Information Server. I would love for them to meet me halfway and at least understand IT conceptually, but that's probably not going to happen. If that's a problem for you, you might ask yourself why you chose IT as a career.
Part of your job is to serve the people who won't meet you halfway. And you have to figure out how to explain it to them. That's part of your job too.
Years ago I was working as a consultant, and during a meeting the CEO said, out of nowhere, "I just bought a laptop for $1000. Why are we paying $1500 for ours?" I explained the idea of warranties, consistent business-grade parts, all of the components that added to our cost, but he kept bringing up the question. I started wondering why I hadn't been able to get through to him. Finally, I said, "Why do some people buy Volkswagens and some people buy Porsches?" (It helped that I knew he drove a Porsche.) The light bulb went on and he finally understood. But I had to connect with him on an emotional level, the spot where he understood why it's worthwhile to pay more. I had to find the halfway point for him; I had to find out what was in it for him.
IT has to learn to accommodate the human factor, to answer that same question for the person on the business side: What's in it for me? It's more than the general issue of the company's bottom line—if we lose money, people get laid off. You have to figure out what each person is listening for. For the sales guy, it's the idea that if he makes more sales, he gets his bonus. Figure out what they're listening for, accommodate it, and see how much they'll appreciate you.
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