Stop the Madness: Learn to Work with IT

By Paul Chin

Originally published in Intranet Journal (25-Sep-2007)

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Why is it that so many intranet content owners ask me, "how should I deal with IT?" with the same air as when reluctantly asking a doctor, "how should I deal with this skin rash?" They go on to talk about IT people as though they're an otherworldly species who communicate in gibberish and feast on prairie rodents.

But these feelings of unease—especially among the non-techies—when working with IT are based mostly on false perceptions of IT. There's nothing secretive or paranormal about them. They have the same concerns that you do: deadlines and deliverables, funding and resources, and all the interpersonal baggage that comes with working on a multi-departmental project.

In a past article, I wrote about how to best work with intranet content owners. It's only fair I do the same with their technical counterparts. So, how do you deal with IT? You don't deal with IT, you work with IT.

Respect the spec

During development, an intranet's project specs and schedule must be established by both content owners and IT. Once that framework has been set up, resist the urge to make changes to it unless absolutely necessary and agreed upon by both parties. Post-spec additions—known as feature creep—have a rippling effect that can wreak havoc with IT's schedule. Nothing will sour IT's mood during development more than constantly changing project specs and then having content owners complain that deliverables are taking too long. This shows a reckless disregard for IT and their priorities. And it's also a sure way to get you a one-way trip to the doghouse.

Establish intranet management boundaries

What's one of the main reasons parents are reluctant to buy a dog for their kids? Because they know full well that they, not their kids, will end up having to take care of it. IT works in cooperation with content owners to develop an intranet, fully expecting them to take the reins of daily content management once the system hits the production environment. But if content owners lose interest, lack time, or whatever the excuse du jour may be, they might be tempted to place this responsibility on IT's shoulders. Big mistake. IT's responsible for the technical side of intranet management, never the content side. Technical staff will resent content owners who think that IT has all the time in the world to take on other people's responsibilities. If content owners let their content duties fall by the wayside, expecting IT to pick up the slack, it will be the system and its users who will suffer in the end.

Learn to speak IT

IT people speak their own language. They use technical jargon in everyday speech—even when working with non-technical people—without even knowing it. They do this out of habit because they deal with these concepts everyday. It's their job to immerse themselves in technology, but not everyone does. And sometimes it's easy for IT people to forget this. So, if you work closely with IT, it's a good idea to become bilingual, able to speak both business and technology. You don't need to be fluent in technology or harp on all the nuts and bolts, but you should understand the underlying technologies surrounding your intranet at a conceptual level so that your IT staff doesn't pull their hair out from having to repeatedly explain elementary concepts.

Empathize with IT

Like doctors in an ER ward, there are far too many patients for the available doctors on duty. In other words, don't always expect instant gratification. IT personnel are often overworked and under-appreciated. They work with dozens of departments and hundreds of users—all with a list of requests that, according to them, must be fulfilled immediately. IT has a triage process and you may think your request is top priority, but it's not always possible for them to drop what they're doing to meet your needs—especially if they're dealing with something mission critical. Show a little empathy for IT and realize that you're not the only one they work with. You might be in a bind, but IT might be in one as well.

Respect your IT staff

Life lesson: Never be rude to your waiter or waitress, and never be rude to your IT staff. They're both in the service business but that doesn't give you the right to be condescending or ill-mannered toward them. You're supposed to be on equal footing with IT, so treat them that way. When it comes to technical matters, defer to their expertise. If they say that something can't be done, or isn't feasible or advisable, trust their technical opinion. Don't stubbornly argue with them or pretend that you know more than they do unless you actually do—and be prepared to back up your opinions. Dictating how they should do their job and constantly looking over their shoulders shows a lack of respect. Basing your professional relationship with IT on mutual respect is much more productive than adopting a territorial "us versus them" attitude. And the most important rule to remember is that IT works with you, they don't work for you.

Acknowledge IT's role

Working in IT isn't always glamorous. They take a lot of heat from users and management, they're often scapegoats for all technological hiccups, they're unwilling foster parents to abandoned applications, and they're constantly accused of taking too long to meet user needs. Show some appreciation for their efforts and contributions. They may work in the background, but that doesn't mean they like to live in the background. I was once involved in a year long project that was capped off with an internal communique acknowledging the tireless efforts of all those involved. One problem: No mention was made of IT's rather large role in the project. Do you think that made me or my team want to work with this group again in the future? Not so much...

Closing Thoughts

The interpersonal dynamics of working in any large group can be tough enough; but add to that, working with a group that speaks a different language and looks at a project from a completely different perspective, and it can become even more challenging. This, however, is a good thing. If everyone looked at a project the same way, everyone could be making the same mistakes. It's always good to have multiple points of view.

There's no reason to be intimidated by IT. Stop looking at them as "the others," and focus on your similarities and shared goals rather than your differences. You have your area of expertise and they have theirs. It's this diversity that strengthens an intranet. Granted, some IT people have an air of superiority about them, and they may be difficult to work with. They may project that attitude of being above everyone else because they know so much more about technology than non-techies. But this has nothing to do with IT as a whole. These people are simply jerks. And being a jerk is an equal opportunity character flaw regardless of department.

Copyright © 2007 Paul Chin. All rights reserved.
Reproduction of this article in whole or part in any form without prior written permission of Paul Chin is prohibited.