RESEARCH & RESOURCES

Marketing IT In-House: Users Have to Know Why They’re There

Make sure users understand their roles in the enterprise before you begin a BI project.

By Max T. Russell, Max and Max Communications

I used to think most of the "history of terrible communication between IT and BI users" -- which my articles address -- was IT's fault. I've come to believe at least half of it is the responsibility of user management.

Expert BI teams know that BI is as interpersonal as it is business-oriented and that BI projects flourish when there is a sustained, transparent conversation between IT and users.

When workers don't understand their roles in relation to each other and to the business, they aren't ready for the kind of conversation a BI initiative requires.

There's no better illustration of this than my recent experience with just such a problem at a manufacturer I'll call Growing Conveyor. The IT director's positive reports on data management cannot hide the fact that he doesn't know how to introduce fact-based business solutions to users and user management who don't even know how to talk to each other about the company's business.

A recently hired project manager at the engineering and design facility has dared to take action on the problem. This project manager -- I'll call him Edward -- doesn't know what business intelligence is, and yet, by addressing the facility's own "history of terrible communication," he is unknowingly moving his site's upper management and employees straight at the IT director's dream of introducing BI to them.

The Company Profile

Growing Conveyor's history of innovation was soiled after acquiring a number of vendors of conveyor components, materials, and related products. These were brought under one corporate umbrella to keep Growing Conveyor strong among established contenders.

Growth has outpaced the company's readiness to coordinate its thousands of employees and multiple work cultures at locations across the country. Workers at some sites have a clear view of their roles but they believe management does not. Entire departments at some sites wouldn't know a fact-based business solution if it hit them between the eyes.

Management at the engineering site where Edward now works has been unable to motivate and organize its employees. Projects have been carried out with communication marked by independence, confusion, and tension. The workers seldom have even the most basic conversations about the business that faithfully delivers their paychecks.

Can You Tell Me Why You're Here?

A big obstacle for management at Edward's site is that the workers simply don't understand how they fit into the whole enterprise. Until recently, senior management never thought about their workers' need to understand the business. Edward is different; he oversees projects with the perspectives of a business person and an engineer. Unfortunately, Edward points out, other managers don't.

The idea of taking a stand against enterprisewide communication dysfunction rattled Edward's nerves severely because he is new to Growing Conveyor and was assigned a job that his predecessor was fired for bidding on and winning (and which the accounting office later said was doomed to financial loss).

A supervisor began pressuring Edward to work a miracle. The foremost, unspoken concern was: Is there any way to prevent a financial catastrophe? The second unspoken concern was: Can we deliver on time so that we can save our reputation, move past this loss, and get on with profitable engagements?

Edward didn't have satisfactory answers, but he was bent on another kind of ROI that would impact the work culture all the way up the chain of command. He made up his mind that nothing would stop him -- as long as he didn't get fired.

Several months of struggling to find a sensible direction for the project opened his eyes to a costly lack of interpersonal and interdepartmental communication. He discovered that certain departments weren't planning to meet his project's milestones. They weren't even working toward them. They were spending their time on jobs that would make them look good.

Spreading the Responsibility

Edward felt the weight of the entire project on his shoulders. He hadn't figured out the in-house politics yet. How in the world could he get employees to work? Which (if any) of his bosses wanted to hear the real reasons for the dysfunctional work culture?

Edward would soon have a new boss who would be highly interested in knowing what he knew, but that boss hadn't arrived yet.

Edward called me for advice. I emphasized that his first order of business was to refuse to take the blame for a lost cause he had inherited. I explained that upper management was pressuring his supervisor to get some sort of favorable result from the project, and that the pressure was being passed down to Edward because the company was paying him good money.

Instead of panicking, this was Edward's opportunity to offer leadership. It was time to tell the truth -- carefully and specifically -- without playing the blame game. Part of his opportunity would be to draft a protocol for choosing the most promising contracts in the future. In the meantime, he had to deal with the current, problem-plagued project.

"Upper management will be watching to see what you can do with this project," I said. "They don't know what to do or how to talk to technical employees. When you show them what to do, they will promote you." Edward answered, "If that's true, then I am just the person to handle this project."

He quickly itemized all tasks along with the departments and individuals who were responsible for completing them. He assigned deadlines, and employees were able to see that all levels of management had a clear view of each person's responsibilities and impact. If senior managers did not enforce the deadlines, the failures would fall squarely on them.

Edwards actions immediately drew attention. His supervisor asked, "Edward, do you mind leading our discussions with senior management about this project from now on?" A senior manager copied all senior managers on an e-mail to Edward, saying, "Edward, it would be good to have your leadership involved in all our projects."

How to Think Like Edward

As with most BI implementations, tensions rose as the deadline for "going commercial" with the product approached. Edward stayed on track with his simple plan. When he saw signs that upper management was nervous, he presented diagrams and other graphics that illustrated (1) all the individual responsibilities to the project, (2) which milestones were not necessarily scheduled realistically, and (3) the next logical project step(s).

Edward also explained that the goal was to cut losses and deliver a good product on time. A few weeks later, the product was released. Deadlines had been met under his leadership, and one part of Growing Conveyor was being nudged in a good direction.

He had succeeded in leading a sensible business conversation among managers, as well as proving the effectiveness of a basic strategy to coordinate the work force toward a high priority. Communication was key; when team members understood their roles and responsibilities, they could begin correcting their communication dysfunction.

Perhaps within a year, Edward's leadership will have created a BI-friendly environment that IT will take advantage of. The engineering facility could certainly benefit. To get there, Edward and senior management must continue to educate the engineers, designers, and programmers about how they fit into the business of the enterprise and why departments need to cooperate with each other and with management. Such discussions must become part of the company culture, and IT must be part of these discussions.

As you market IT in-house, look for the Edwards who can help you move the cause of the enterprise forward. Once users understand the context of their roles and are willing to communicate with each other in the language of the business, the BI team can offer technological support that adds meaning, clarity, and usefulness to the interdepartmental conversation.

Max T. Russell invites your suggestions about future article topics. As owner of Max and Max Communications, he works behind the scenes to promote individuals and projects in a variety of industries. He and his identical twin, Max S., are heavy technology users who have been discussing and dissecting the challenges of IT in the workplace for the past 18 years. You can contact the author at maxt@maxtrussell.com .

TDWI Membership

Get immediate access to training discounts, video library, BI Teams, Skills, Budget Report, and more

Individual, Student, & Team memberships available.