Talk is cheap (but highly recommended) for leading IT workers

These days IT executives are constantly asking me how to regain their workers' trust and loyalty, which was damaged during the recession. I think it may be too late for many of these people.

It's certainly worth the effort to keep A-list workers who have more of a stake in the company than others. But

shouldn't executives really be focusing on the future instead of trying to repair the past?

The truth is that there are powerful yet relatively simple things a CIO can do to breed contented workers, and these things can also be effective in turning the tide of low morale. One of them is communicating.

Generally speaking, most employers communicate poorly to their employees. The traditional dispassionate broadcast of changes in strategies, policies and programs more often than not fails to properly manage expectations, resulting in confusion, resentment or even outright anger among workers.

In crisis conditions, the result can be far worse. For example, internal conflict leaked out to the media can blow matters out of proportion and damage a company's reputation (and even stock prices). Moreover, you'd be surprised how few companies have established any sort of program for regular, structured dialogue between individual IT workers and their bosses.

Communication between IT management and workers needs to be a two-way process. It needs to be well thought out. I'm not talking about opening up internal processes and inviting the participation and collaboration of lots of people on every important decision; that's unrealistic and unnatural. I'm referring to something as simple as having a strategic IT communications plan. Without one, it's impossible to manage internal or external communications proactively, or on the fly, when problems arise.

Here are the basics for planning communications, whether at the enterprise, project, department or workgroup level.

IT communications charter

  • Specify the communications scope: enterprise, business line, departmental or project level.
  • Clarify communications goals and issues.
  • Identify stakeholders for communications messages. There may be many, ranging from senior, line and project managers to customers/clients, contractors, competitors, distributors, suppliers and former employees to the government, the general public and the media.
  • Determine who should be responsible for communications. Again, this depends on the scope: executives, line/department managers, project managers, opinion leaders, consultants (or all).
  • Prepare a high-level communications plan.

IT communications stakeholder analysis

  • Recognize the roles of the various stakeholders, their main interests and the relationships between stakeholders. A stakeholder does not need to be an employee or even directly involved in the project or decision, but it should be someone who will be affected by the outcome.
  • Determine each stakeholder's information needs, expectations, obligations, preferred communications method, timing of communications, desired communications method (written, in-person, live, video, email) and who should deliver communications.

IT communications success metrics

  • Define how you will know if your communications plan and its execution are successful. This could be quantitative (e.g., reduced complaints, fewer support calls, new communications mechanisms where none existed) or qualitative (opinions expressed in interviews, focus groups, surveys).

Organizational communications assessment

  • Ensure that all communications needs are surfaced. This includes new compensation or rewards plans, offshore outsourcing plans, departmental restructuring, performance management programs, benefits or stock option plans, major customer relationship management or data warehousing initiatives; or even a workforce reduction.
  • Individual and group assessments are usually accomplished via interviews, focus groups and surveys to determine specific communications needs, issues, modalities and so on.

IT communications plan

  • Create an overall strategic IT communications plan or a set of communications plans that cover various point strategies. For example, an offshore outsourcing communications plan would identify supplier communications needs, provide methods for measuring results and allocating rewards to achieve results consistent with new offshoring activities and structure, establish cross-organizational improvement processes and eliminate old structures. It would also communicate the following: a workforce integration plan and progress in building the onshore/offshore team; upgrades in training, deploying and re-deploying personnel; progress in organizational change management or transition; knowledge transfer and skills adoption; and continuous improvement plans.

Managing communications requires much effort and pinpoint expertise. It's typically accomplished only with in-house communications specialists or experienced communications consultants who can show you precisely how to plan, implement and maintain an effective communications program. And if you are willing to make supreme efforts to communicate with your IT workers, don't try to obscure possible negatives; your people will know it and resent you for it.

For more information:

David says that CIOs have several bullets to dodge in this post-recession era.

Not communicating can cause chaos in the IT department these days.

Read David's advice on how to hire and keep your best people.

A word about maintenance: Communications plans require constant vigilance, primarily due to the inherent discomfort most organizations -- and the average person -- experience with communication issues. But once a company can shed its poor communication habits and take into account the emotional and psychological needs of its workers, it will discover that it takes less effort to be "open" than it takes to manage the predictable fallout from the traditional closed approach to communications. I guarantee that you will see a noticeable improvement in morale and worker attitudes.

David Foote is co-founder, president and chief research officer of Foote Partners LLC, a general management consultancy and IT workforce research firm in New Canaan, Conn. A former Gartner Inc. and Meta Group Inc. analyst who founded and directed Meta's Executive Service, Foote has advised leading corporations and governments on five continents in information age management strategies for more than 20 years. Contact him at dfoote@footepartners.com.

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