• United States
by David Raths

Tips for leading IT amid corporate change

News Analysis
Mar 06, 20066 mins
Data CenterEnterprise ApplicationsIT Leadership

A great communications strategy will help guarantee a project's success.

The best of today’s new-generation IT executives have learned to devote as many resources to communications as they do to servers, software and the network.

Erv Blythe is a perfect example. In leading a mainframe-migration project, the vice president for IT at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., threw out his old way of thinking and ushered in a leadership strategy that revolved around communicating with business constituents.

“That project had two starts; the first I didn’t think was very good,” he recalls. “It was managed like any project in the old mainframe perspective – you know: ‘We’re from IT, and we’re here to help you.’ I had to stop that way of thinking.”

Realizing the project was too big to succeed on the basis of IT service agreements alone, he requested the participation of specific top-level businesspeople on the project team. When the university provost balked at giving up senior personnel to work on the project, Blythe responded, “If it doesn’t hurt, then I named the wrong person.”

Tactics for leading through change
  • Form partnerships and hold regular one-on-one meetings with business-line executives.
  • Pair business-unit executives and IT staff on project-management teams.
  • Seek advice from outside executives who have participated in similar projects.
  • Consider hiring a change-management consultant if the project is big enough.
  • Find new ways, including brown-bag lunches, online newsletters and surveys, to keep open the lines of communication with staff.
  • Market IT success stories to your internal customers.

Eventually, the human-resources and finance personnel he requested for the migration project took leaves of absence to work full time on the transition. Having business-unit leaders on the project team helped keep expectations in line with the realities of what the new technology infrastructure could provide, Blythe says.

Savvy IT leaders such as Blythe also understand it’s important to attend to politics and perceptions, too. A project is really 80% driven by politics, 15% by the budget and only 5% by the technology, Blythe says, admitting to his previous belief that technology accounted for 90% of project decisions.

Beyond technology

Sometimes the biggest projects IT executives oversee aren’t implementations of new systems but large organizational changes.

That’s the situation of California’s IT leaders, who in 2004 received a legislative mandate to consolidate the state’s two large data centers and its Office of Network Services into a Department of Technology Services. This massive change will create an agency with a $300 million annual budget and affect how 800 people from three IT organizations do their jobs, says Bob Austin, now chief deputy director for the new department.

The IT execs knew they had a huge change-management issue on their hands, says Austin, who also is one of the leaders of a temporary Consolidation Management Office (CMO). Created in May 2005, the CMO is overseeing the transition, which is expected to be complete by July 2007.

“We had to get our arms around this quickly, because mergers and acquisitions is not a core competency of ours,” Austin says. As a first step, the CMO sought help from a private-sector peer-advisory group, tapping into the merger expertise of IT, financial and HR executives.

Following the group’s recommendations, the CMO made it a top priority to keep employees informed of the project’s status.

This is an absolute must when leading through change, says Kenneth Rau, a senior consultant with Cutter Consortium. “It should constantly be in the forefront of [leaders’] minds that they’ve got to communicate the status of projects with all stakeholders. When a project gets in trouble, that’s when the communication usually ceases, which is exactly the wrong approach,” he says.

In California, the CMO takes employee involvement a step further. Another priority, Austin says, is involving employees in the project’s details.

For instance, the CMO forms an employee committee to settle on one method and format when departments at the two sites being merged provide the same service, such as budgeting. “Then we publish [the decision] internally before we make it official, so there’s a staff vetting process and everyone can see the rationale behind the consolidated procedure,” Austin says.

The CMO gets the word out on the project through surveys and online newsletters, and Austin speaks at large, town-hall meetings and smaller, brown-bag sessions. He comes prepared to address questions on a wide range of topics, including technology, policies and procedures, organizational-culture differences and employee-commute issues.

Besides raising questions, employees use these meetings to express concerns and provide project input.

Interactive sessions

These interactive sessions have been the most effective communications tool the transition team has, Austin says.

“The results have been clear messages to staff on strategy and process, buy-in and ownership of the project objective,” as well as validation of the group’s work, he says.

Elizabeth Hackenson, executive vice president and CIO at telecom giant MCI (now a Verizon subsidiary), says she strives to form partnerships with business-unit leaders before projects get started. “The two of you have to talk about expectations, about why you’re going forward with this,” she explains. “There’s a trust factor you have to build.”

MCI recently completed a sales-force-automation project that took two years and affected 7,000 salespeople. Throughout the process, IT and sales leaders had conversations one on one to make sure they were on the same page.

“We had problems from a technology perspective that upset the user base, but we addressed it with immediate communications,” she recalls. “Some people don’t want to deliver bad news, but you have to have the confidence to be honest about these things.”

Hackenson, who oversees more than 3,000 IT staffers from her office in Ashburn, Va., also advises being open to seeking outside help from change-management consulting firms.

Before the sales-force-automation project, MCI’s IT department didn’t have a relationship with sales. The change consultants helped IT set up surveys and newsletters. The next time the IT department does a project for sales, a communication infrastructure will be in place, and trust will have been established between the groups.

After all, as Cutter Consortium’s Rau stresses, great IT leaders not only communicate about projects planned or underway, but also can tell succinct stories about IT’s recent successes. “Delivering sound bites can go a long way toward improving IT’s image,” he says.

Raths is a freelance writer in Portland, Maine. He can be reached at