Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

Some years ago, the CIO of a Fortune 200 company was addressing 800 IT executives about the challenges of managing end users and assessing their technology needs. During the session, a member of the audience asked her how many end users her company had. Her answer was immediate: "We have 40,000, and the way I know this is that there are 40,000 people who think they know more than I about managing an IT shop because they can build a spreadsheet."

All the executives chuckled knowingly.

As CIOs, one of our primary goals is to maintain organisational cohesion. To do so, we must convince (and sometimes bribe) the business units to adhere to corporate standards, architecture, policies, methodologies and procedures. We face many challenges as we work toward this goal - mergers and acquisitions, technology shifts, divergent business models within the business units - but one of the most frustrating roadblocks is the sceptic.

Sceptics, such as the spreadsheet experts who frustrated the Fortune 200 CIO, often have strong personal computing skills and provide informal support to their peers. Though they generally are not skilled in networking, telecommunications or software development, they are considered IT experts by the other workers in their groups. But the characteristic most relevant to us is their attitude toward the CIO's decisions.

Sceptics are highly opinionated about our performance and won't hesitate to inform co-workers about what they consider to be our questionable management ability. Sceptics can divert attention from the positive aspects of our work.

They might point out, for example, that the IT department's most recent rollout had a 2 per cent missed target rate rather than a 98 per cent success rate. They can create a corporate culture in which we are always guilty until proven innocent.

In short, sceptics can be downright irritating. But rather than develop hostility toward them, we should first try to understand what turns innocent end users into grizzled sceptics. Then we need to soften them up.

The Seeds of Doubt

End-user sceptics are often products of bad experiences. If an end user had a problem with our predecessor, he might assume that we are no better. If he is a relatively new hire, any issues he had with IT in his previous company may colour his views.

If he requested some non-standard technology and was refused without receiving an adequate explanation or a superior alternative, he will likely assume that all IT policies will be unreasonable or unresponsive.

Sometimes, though, the issue has to do with the personality of the individual, not with previous history. For example, in the case of a new rollout, if users went to a fellow worker with questions about an old system, that worker probably felt good about her contribution to the group.

Now that a new system is being used, she's not the expert any more and, as a result, she feels less important. This person might therefore blame the IT department for the change in her status.

Ferreting Out the Sceptics

Business unit executives who disagree with us are easy to spot - they show up in executive meetings all the time. But sceptical end users typically are vocal only in the groups in which they work and therefore operate below radar. As CIOs, we often have to make a deliberate effort to find them.

One way to figure out where the sceptics are lurking is to ask department heads or the IT groups that support departments to give you the names of the top technology users in their units. Once you've determined who the highly skilled users are, check your call/service logs to see how often they've requested your services. The usual pattern for end users is that the more they use advanced technology, the more they call your support infrastructure.

So if a person with advanced skills doesn't call as much as help-desk studies show he normally would (about once a month), he might not have adequate confidence in IT's ability to support him.

After you track down potential sceptics, arrange informal individual meetings to discuss your IT direction (and thereby gauge their feelings toward IS). Sceptics are likely to be flattered by this.

To further appeal to them, publish an all-employee e-mail message announcing a fact-finding mission in which important technology users will be asked for feedback and advice. Then follow up with either a phone call or a personal e-mail message requesting a meeting.

During the meeting, ask them about their previous IT experiences and their suggestions for change. Their attitude should help you determine whether they harbour any animosity toward you or your department.

Defusing and Diffusing

After you've identified the sceptics in your organisation, you can deal with them in two basic ways: convert them to your side, or try to minimise their impact.

The most effective, but also the most difficult, way to neutralise sceptics is to convert them. During a new system implementation, for example, make sure they become experts in the new system, thus solving the psychological status problem.

And, as you give them ongoing support, you can develop a working relationship while enforcing their expert status.

A second tactic is to involve them early and significantly in new system plans. You might have them identify critical success factors for any new system upfront, measure these during the pilot and then give a report to their peer group.

Be sure to thank them for their input in front of their peers and bosses to publicly identify them as having some ownership in the new system.

Converting these sceptics is an important pursuit, but it can take time. When you don't have that time - such as when a new project is about to start - you might need to put conversion on hold and start trying to diminish a sceptic's impact.

One easy way to do this is by displaying IT performance charts, with testimonials, in public places (such as the coffee room or intranet). These charts should contain two specific types of data: quantitative graphs and tables of actual performance metrics - showing improvement, of course - and quotes or anecdotes from former sceptics who now have confidence in your shop.

A quote from an influential end user that begins with, "Last year I thought the IT shop was basically unresponsive, but their excellent support and help this last quarter has changed my mind completely" will go a long way toward counterbalancing the sceptics' negative remarks.

A second, slightly more complex tactic is to involve a sceptic on an informal end-user steering committee on which the majority of the members are supportive of IT and have equal or better technical skills than the sceptic.

As various technology proposals and IT initiatives are discussed, the sceptic will often be shot down by his peers, which will make him more hesitant to launch into his "I know how to do it better than IT" lecture.

All of this is not to say that sceptics cannot play an important role in an organisation. They sometimes see real holes in our initiatives and service, and their feedback can alert the CIO to minor issues before they become major problems.

Be sure to express public and private appreciation for this feedback and assistance as well as encourage them to bring future issues to you early.

When sceptics are converted, they can help us deal with the next round of sceptics. And, since they are influential in their business unit or group, converted sceptics can be great intelligence and marketing allies for us, helping us to keep track of perceptions about IT and to correct misunderstandings. By dealing wisely with influential sceptics in our enterprises, we can both neutralise their negative impact and harness some of their influence for the good of the IT department and the enterprise.

Glenn M Miller is a former CIO currently producing executive development video courses for CIOs that focus on business and political skills. He can be reached through the Web site

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