IT Credibility Challenge #2: Inconsistent View of IT's Performance

By Patty Azzarello

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As I’ve mentioned in prior articles, CIO’s do countless and impressive things on a daily basis to keep the world turning. Your tireless effort ensures that the business does not need to worry about or even understand the technology it is so dependent on.

When it’s all working, no one notices. When big crises have been thoughtfully and heroically avoided, no one notices. When there is an executive email outage for 30 minutes, now that’s newsworthy! When an executive’s call to the help desk got the wrong routing, that can trigger an outright campaign against IT.

These random incidents have a way of casting a dark shadow over the reputation of the IT department. Because you can’t really prevent all such incidents from occurring, the only way to counteract their damage to your credibility is to make sure you also have a steady stream of clear, consumable, positive news to set the right context for the periodic “disaster”.

The Magic Bullet - Reporting

Here’s a very common situation. Users are complaining about the performance and availability of a particular IT Service. IT is frustrated because the service is performing to the agreed service levels. Telling users this only irritates them more.

But surprisingly, when you tell them this on a regular and consistent basis with graphs and charts, they get happy. The best part is, you usually don’t even need to improve the service! When IT organizations begin to regularly measure and publish their service level achievements, the perception of the business users changes to: “Wow, that IT service has really improved”—even when it’s unchanged. I’ve seen it over and over again. It’s a good deal.

Pitfall: “We don’t use SLA’s”

Yikes! There is a definite dynamic that exists in some businesses where SLA = legal contract = “I don’t want to do that”, i.e., “If I miss a performance metric, then lawyers are going to get involved and it’s going to be even more annoying.”

This is not a typical outcome, and it’s not a reason to avoid clarifying what you are delivering and how you intend to measure it. Service level agreements (SLA) can be informal in the sense of their “binding consequences”, but they need to be formal and specific about articulating expected service levels. This has many benefits for you.

Having a specific understanding about objectives and expectations, and equally clear guidelines to measure your team’s performance will help you deliver better, and also create reports that are more meaningful, namely, “We did what we said we would do.”

The takeaway? If you haven’t committed to anything specific, you never get the chance to show you have done it.

Measure things people care about. Having a long list of network availability, server capacity, or disk utilization metrics is meaningless to a business person. You need invest time and energy to find out what is meaningful, and start measuring those things.

Talking to your business counterparts about business objectives will give you a much clearer understanding of two things: peaks and disasters. Funny how those go hand in hand when you haven’t talked about it. Ask them their view of a business disaster. Understand their view of an IT disaster. Learn about special situations and business scenarios that will drive peak usage.

If you start measuring things like the performance of the cash registers from 7 am-to-9 am in the coffee house franchise’s key locations, or the ability to re-price all the retail merchandise on the day after Christmas, or the performance and availability of the trading system 30 minutes before market close, now you’re getting somewhere.

Let the business name things. It is critical that you don't project your IT labels for things out into the business. They don’t understand it, and they find it annoying. Even the phrase “submit a ticket” is IT jargon, that most companies would do better without. How about “Get help with a problem” or “Request a service”?

Take the time to understand what labels your users would naturally call your various services and use those terms instead of your technology names. Get the list right and make sure it's understandable to non-IT people. Even test it with users before you make it official. Can they find the things they typically look for?

Then make sure it is all consistent. Presenting inconsistent names for things is particularly maddening to a business person who thinks he has finally learned “what IT calls it” and then is faced with a different IT interface, where it has a different name, and they can’t find it again.

And if someone is looking for telephone support in an alphabetical list under "T" and you have it under "G" for "Global Telephone System", that is frustrating enough, until they look for the next thing and check under "Global" thinking they are being clever, and you have it listed under "Worldwide". I don’t make this stuff up.

Check all your interfaces! The act of creating this clarity and consistency alone, will go a very long way to establishing IT's credibility, and a consistently positive view of IT’s performance.

Don’t shoot yourself in the foot. It’s a pretty well known fact that many IT problems are self inflicted. You need to do maintenance and upgrades, which often cause problems and outages, but I’ve seem many IT departments make spectacularly bad choices as to when to do them.

Schedule IT problems with business users. When you need to roll out an upgrade, or implement a lot of changes at once, think about this. Instead of sending an email that says “We are going to do an upgrade, you may experience service interruptions”, plan this with your business counterparts.

It seems obvious, but the number of times I have seen this type of email on the second to the last day of a quarter is quite alarming. Go to your key stakeholders, review your plans, and understand what they have on the books. If you need to do a rollout, give them a panic button, give them an escalation to you when they are in a business critical timeframe. Make someone specifically available to hand hold specific key users through the transition.

Developing this plan together, getting the timing right, and putting escalation resources and process in place ahead of time with your business counterparts will build your credibility (and effectiveness) immensely.

All these things serve to build a consistent positive view of IT, and to provide a meaningful and positive context to weather the occasional disruption without damaging your credibility.

At age 33, Patty Azzarello became the youngest general manager at HP. At age 35 she was running a $1B software business. Patty is now the founder and CEO of Azzarello Group, which delivers practical, experience-based tools to CIO’s and other business leaders through products and services including articles, online programs, executive coaching, public speaking & workshops.