I know that if I've taken the time to write a carefully-composed email containing important information, I'd expect my recipients to read it? Wrong.
These days, according to multiple internal communications studies*, you're lucky if one in two recipients actually open your message, let alone read it all the way through.
The story is even bleaker for IT messages, according to the many IT professionals I speak with each day. Their failure to get important messages through to staff has led to internal misunderstandings, mix-ups, and confusion. All of which can be very costly to their personal reputation, and the wider business.
Given that IT is a business-critical function, it's essential that IT-to-business communication is clear and effective.
So why do IT professionals get a bad rap for their communications? Why do their messages get missed or misunderstood? Admittedly, us IT-types are known for our love of acronyms and technical language (that at times can bamboozle our non-IT colleagues).
Based on personal experience and professional observations, here are my tips for 2020 on how to improve business IT communications in your company, and forever remove the stereotype label of being poor communicators.
1. Plan for Proactive and Reactive Communications
It's important to be both reactive and proactive in your approach to communications. Reactive communications cover events like system outages, security bulletins, and upgrade announcements. Instant messaging and news feeds means you can deliver timely notifications to all users when it matters. Even those staff who are out on the road or working remotely should be able to access this content via their smartphone or tablet.
Proactive communications are essential for all planned work; for example, a scheduled maintenance or a digital transformation project such as migration to a new operating system. These can be met with frustration or downright opposition by staff. Usually, the root of the problem is that IT hasn't answered the "what's in it for me" question. An explainer video means you can talk directly to staff.
Follow-up on the video with a blog. Employees can provide feedback, share insights, and ask questions. IT can use the blog to dispel myths and rumors, and keep everyone on the same page. It's a simple but highly effective tool for developing two-way staff conversations, and it will help you to manage organizational change more effectively.
2. Review Your Communications Channels
What internal communication channels are you currently using? What works well? Which ones do your users prefer?
Start out by surveying your colleagues across the business. Survey staff views and invite feedback on your communications. Ask them if your communications are clear, timely, and have enough of the right information. Also ask for feedback on all the channels you use, from email through to desk alerts or newsletters. You need to understand whether your communication channels are hitting the mark for colleagues. You may uncover new apps that staff have enjoyed using at previous employers.
Another possibility is a focus group with a cross-section of staff from all parts of the business. A focus group allows you to dig deeper on some of the issues thrown up by the survey, and it allows you to explore in detail the communication needs of users.
For example, helpdesk customers need to know their problem has been understood and the timeframe for dealing with it. But what else do they need from you? How do you communicate when a software update means the server will be down? Perhaps the instant message you usually send out the morning of the upgrade just isn't enough. Similarly, when migrating to a new platform, how do you work through employees' issues and concerns? A focus group means you can hear first-hand just what's really important for your colleagues.
3. Develop An IT Communications Roadmap
Armed with hard facts and data from the survey and focus group, you are now ready to take the next step. An internal communications plan or roadmap will help to ensure you communicate effectively with the rest of the organization. To be effective, the plan needs to address a number of aspects as follows:
Audience: Different audiences will have different needs. IT departments will have several audiences, including the whole organization, management, different departments, specific project teams, even offices in different locations. How you speak to those audiences, the channels you use, and your tone of voice will vary. The communications plan should identify the key messages you need to communicate to each audience and the channels you are going to use.
Responsibility: The roadmap also needs to make it clear who is responsible for making communications happen. It's a good idea to have a named staff member assigned to each audience; that way, they can build up a close relationship with the audience. What's more, the audience knows who to go to when they have an issue with communications.
Timeframes: Make it clear when communications need to take place. Notices about the server being down due to maintenance are obviously top priority. On the other hand, updates on the digital strategy will operate to a different timescale. Users need to know what they can expect and when.
Technical language: The everyday language used by IT professionals may sound gobbledegook to the rest of the company! Use the focus group to help identify what terms and language you need to avoid, and you will know what terminology needs more explanation so that your audience has a better understanding. (By the way, it's OK to use acronyms, so long as you include the full meaning up front.) There are external resources you can draw on here. For example, the Plain English Campaign has a number of free helpful guides designed to make your writing clearer and more accessible.
Review mechanisms: Once you have completed the plan, don't make the mistake of filing it away as a job done. The roadmap should be a living document capable of adapting to changing business requirements both internal and external. Incorporate regular review mechanisms to ensure the plan is still fit for purpose, and, of course, report back to your audiences if things change as a result of the review.
Tools To Improve IT Business Communications
So, what digital tools are out there that can support IT-to-business communications?
How-to-videos: Nowadays, video content really is king. The popularity of YouTube and videos on social media demonstrate our strong preference for visual communication. In fact, one survey found that when it comes to learning about a product or service, 72% of people prefer video over text. So, when explaining how to use software or complete an online process, video should be a central communication channel for IT.
Tip: Screen recordings are a highly effective, super-simple way to explain a new IT process.
A word of warning though: don't overdo it. An extensive menu of how-to videos will soon lose its appeal to users. To maximize the impact and value of video, stick to headline tasks. Nobody wants to sit through long, boring videos. Instead, keep it short and snappy so it remains engaging and useful for users.
Instant messaging: Urgent messages need to get to users quickly. An instant message can alert colleagues to the imminent updating of software so they can save their work before the shutdown. For any offsite workers, an SMS message also does the trick.
Automated helpdesk tickets: For work colleagues, getting prompt help with IT queries and issues is perhaps the most important function of IT. For IT professionals, it's essential to receive clear information about what the problem is so you can provide the best response. Often, the helpdesk is a telephone line with an IT professional providing a diagnostic service, as well as basic self-help tips. Online automated systems allow IT to remain in control of the process while freeing up staff from helpdesk duties.
Self-Help Portals & FAQs: Many IT teams report being asked the same questions all the time by colleagues.While time-consuming and disruptive, dealing with queries is often an issue for IT departments. Self-help portals and a full set of easily understood FAQs offer a solution; staff members can source help directly for themselves, often bypassing IT altogether. This makes for efficient and effective working across the business.
Improving IT-To-Business Communications: The Modern-Day Intranet
Intranets have come a long way, and now pack a great deal of functionality into a single solution. With universal coverage, an intranet means you can engage directly with users on a daily basis.
- Use an instant messaging service to send out urgent alerts; for example, if a main server is down.
- Canvas staff members' views and invite feedback on your service with a survey.
- Develop an IT self-help portal on the intranet with how-to-videos, FAQs, and a host of support resources.
- Automate helpdesk tickets. Create status and rule-driven workflows using an intranet's fully customizable forms (or, if preferred, embed a Google form directly).
- Share updates and news, invite comments and feedback, and develop an ongoing dialog with your users.
- Keep work colleagues informed of company-wide IT initiatives through internal news feeds.
Improving IT Business Conversations: The End Prize
If you are still wondering whether communications is worth all this effort, keep an eye on the end-prize. Improved IT business communications can lead to a number of rewards:
- Enhance your organizational reputation: Your colleagues will have a better understanding of IT and your role. This appreciation for what you do will enhance your organizational reputation.
- Justify your costs: IT is a major cost center. Better communications gives you transparency. You can more easily demonstrate to senior executives and the wider organization that you are delivering value to the business.
- Make life easier: The bottom line is that improved communication will make your job as IT manager that much easier. You can get things done faster, more effectively, and efficiently. Confusion, misunderstanding, or wasted time and resources will no longer be a distraction.
*According to the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC), read rate of internal emails is 41%.
Guest blogger Steve Hockey is CEO of cloud-based software provider MyHub.