Unlike some other IT services, communication isn’t a piece of software required for users to get the job done, or a hardware device responsible for critical infrastructure. Nevertheless, IT communications compete for he most valuable customer resource: time.
Our attention spans are stretched thinner today than ever before. Inboxes are overflowing, voicemails are piling up, and texting and instant messaging are becoming ever more popular. IT news must compete with other workplace communications, such as those from HR, administration, or marketing. At Boise State University, as in other higher-education environments, these challenges are compounded by the fact that we must address three separate audiences—students, faculty, and staff—as well as extended audiences that may include parents, alumni, potential students who have yet to enroll, members of the surrounding community who come to campus for events or take advantage of services open to the public, and peers from national and international institutions of higher education.
Communication between IT and its customers has traditionally been the responsibility of the service desk. In some workplaces, consistent, organized communication is hard to achieve; the service desk may not be up to date on the services offered by other areas of IT, turf wars between various departments may result in needless conflict during crises, and communications may vary in focus and quality. However, effective communication is critical to how IT is perceived within an organization, and many companies and higher-education institutions are creating dedicated positions to coordinate and deliver communications.
Enter the IT communications manager!
One of the first steps any IT communications manager should take is assessing the available communication tools, policies, and modalities. Face-to-face meetings, email, websites, newsletters, group presentations, town hall forums, blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and printed materials (e.g., brochures, posters, table tents) are channels available to most communicators. In many cases, the audiences you’ll be communicating with in higher-education environments will be so diverse that a shotgun approach leveraging many (if not most) of the aforementioned methods may be required.
Effective communications aren’t always limited to text, either. Graphic design and multimedia skills are important for reaching certain audiences and successfully conveying your message. Identify resources with these skills, and, if necessary, procure the tools they need (e.g., Adobe Creative Suite for graphic design, Camtasia or Screenflow for screencasting, iMovie or Final Cut for video).
Also, leverage your campus or workplace communications and marketing department. Learn how to navigate your institution’s communication policies and build relationships with other communications professionals. Go to them for advice, utilize their expertise, and discuss the variety of channels available for targeted and general communications. Once you’re aware of the policies, tools, and communication methods at your disposal, you’ll have the requisite ingredients for effective and efficient communications.
When it comes to developing communication plans, it’s important to identify the different types of events you’ll be charged with communicating. Marketing services calls and communicating planned changes calls for a different approach than, say, communicating an outage or other unplanned events.
Service outages or unplanned maintenance requirements are, effectively, reactive communication events. Conversely, marketing services and communicating planned changes and maintenance windows should always be proactive communication events. If someone in your organization contacts you at the last minute to publicize a new service, inform audiences about a service change, or announce a planned maintenance event, then you’re just an afterthought, and they’re not communicating effectively. This problem can be mitigated by having an effective communications plan and process in place, one that has been agreed upon and is followed by the entire organization.
Aside from incidents and service requests or routine maintenance, project plans are the foundation of nearly everything that happens in IT. Communication should be an integral part of every project plan, and the communications manager should have input from the get-go. There should, in fact, be a separate communications plan that addresses the needs for a given project, describes one or more planned communications events, identifies the target audience(s) and the individuals responsible for the events, selects the communication channels, and schedules the events.
Whether communications are reactive or proactive, several different communication methodologies may be necessary, depending on the audience. In identifying your audience and selecting a communication medium, it’s important to know the difference between a broadcast plan and an engagement plan. A broadcast plan is one that can be executed while sitting behind your computer: email, web, social media, etc. An engagement plan requires you to personally connect with your target audience via face-to-face meetings or town hall forums.
Too often IT departments rely almost exclusively upon broadcast plans for communicating. Broadcasts without engagement simply reinforce the stereotype of faceless IT automatons slaving away in the basement, and result in a one-way dialogue. Only engagement will give you an accurate sense of how audiences react to communication events and whether additional or alternative communication strategies are warranted.
I recently sat down with a department on campus to explain a new IT service and solicit feedback. One member of the department thanked me profusely for taking the time (just an hour) to meet with her and her colleagues (as well as acknowledging a similar visit three years ago), citing the meeting as an example of “how wonderful it is that IT gets out to communicate with us.” In other words, the bar has been set quite low. It’s time to get out from behind our desks and raise the bar.
Rally the Troops
Keep in mind that internal communication plans only work if everyone is on board. Earlier this year, I prepared a fairly comprehensive internal communication plan for a service rollout involving several IT departments; so thoroughly was it ignored by the participants that it became merely an exercise in writing a communication plan. If your IT organization doesn’t fully understand and isn’t fully committed to your communication plans and processes, you will run into problems. Get your management and other IT executives to help rally the troops. Successful communication is rarely about the individual; supporting communications is in everyone’s best interests. Asking for assistance from trusted colleagues reinforces the idea that IT communications shouldn’t be the sole responsibility of the communications manager. The communications manager should assist and support the needs of (and be assisted and supported by) the entire IT organization.
When appropriate, combine broadcast and engagement communication methods to effectively reach your audiences and engage with them as partners. Realize that targeted audiences may be more heterogeneous than homogenous. There is a tendency in higher education to view core constituencies as singular groups. This leads to generalizations like “Students love social media! Let’s use social media to communicate with our 20,000 students!” Each year’s incoming students are, without a doubt, more computer literate than their predecessors, and most of those students are active on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and other services. But for most students, socializing with the university (to say nothing of the IT department) in the virtual world is about as cool as inviting mom and dad to a frat party.
Social media aside, many of our students rarely check their university email, and if they do, they’re quite selective about what they open. “Notice: Your Class Fee Payments Are Overdue” will get their attention, but “University Wireless Network Maintenance on August 13” will be sent straight to the trash.
Faculty are a similarly fickle lot. A mistake higher-education institutions often make is lumping faculty together into some vaguely homogenous unit: “We need to get faculty buy-in on this. Call a couple of faculty members and see what they think…” That’s like polling two registered voters and calling the presidential election. I’ve known professors who wait until the end of the semester before they log in to their official university email accounts for the first time!
Strategy and Execution
Effective planning is 80 percent strategy and 20 percent execution. Identifying your audiences, tools, and communication channels, and working from an established communication plan constitutes the strategy. When it comes to execution, first, take the time to do it right: remember, you are what you write. Especially in higher education, the quality of your written communications plays a key role in how your customers perceive you.
Focus on the task at hand. The most common communication mistakes are the result of rushed execution. Tune out the myriad distractions of email, instant messaging, office conversations, phone calls, and other sounds of the workplace. In recent years, the market has seen the emergence of a variety of software tools for helping combat the inherent distractions of office environments, including OmmWriter, iA Writer, ZenWriter, and Scrivener, an excellent all-purpose writing tool. Even WordPress now has a “Distraction Free” mode.
Allow time for others to review your work, whether they’re key stakeholders or trusted colleagues. Often the best advice will come from people outside of IT, individuals who can help tailor your communications for non-IT audiences. I maintain a list of about twenty people, representing a cross-section of the university’s typical target audiences, whom I can call upon to review communication materials and help me improve messaging in ways I may otherwise not have realized.
Be honest and transparent. We recently experienced a three-hour campus telephone system outage. There was very little communication within IT, and it was more than two hours before I learned the extent of the issue. Much hand-wringing ensued as to whether a mass email communication should be sent to several thousand people after 5:00 p.m. (in the end, we decided against it). But later that evening, I crafted an explanation about the outage and had it published the next morning in the university’s general daily news bulletin, before 8 a.m. People really didn’t care whether there was a mass email notification the night before; they did care about why it happened, and they appreciated a concise, transparent explanation, free of jargon and other obtuse language. Always close the loop in your communications.
One area of IT that goes hand in hand with communications is training. Training, whether self-paced, individual, or group-based, can be considered an extended, in-depth form of communication. If your organization has a separate resource for training, ensure your communications and training resources work together to synchronize messaging.
Indeed, leveraging effective communications and training resources can have a profoundly positive impact on your entire IT organization. By communicating the right information to the right audiences, and by deploying training resources to empower and improve end-user skills and knowledge, you can reduce the number of questions your service desk receives, improve future service offerings, and promote the image of an IT organization that actually cares about its customers.
Of course, not all communications can be planned in advance. Outages are significant events, and when an outage occurs, your customers want to know where to turn for clear, concise information. This messaging needs to be targeted and free of jargon, and it must set expectations for further updates.
Before you can send effective outage notifications, you need a communications outage process, and IT must communicate effectively with the communications manager to achieve this. Many areas within IT organizations—service desk, network operations, systems engineers—view their particular teams as distinct from other teams; sometimes they may be reluctant to communicate the full extent of a service outage because they feel they’ll be singled out and blamed for the failure. To end users, however, IT is simply IT. All of IT pays a public relations price when an outage occurs, especially if it’s a critical system that impacts a large number of end users; it’s the communication manager’s job to mitigate that impact, and a key part of doing so is establishing and maintaining transparency through trust.
With end users availing themselves of services 24×7, many need to know outage statuses as soon as possible, which may necessitate after-hours outage communications. If an outage occurs or lasts beyond normal business hours, the communications manager needs to be on call and in a position to post timely notices. This means that whatever outage communication methodology you choose, you must be able to access it remotely at any time, from any device. I recently updated outage information on the side of the freeway, via a few quick taps on my iPhone; the impacted user base numbered in the thousands, and a status update couldn’t wait.
Planning and executing effective, targeted communications doesn’t end with delivery. You must aim for continuous improvement over time by continually assessing your audiences, refining your processes, and improving your skills. Good enough isn’t enough; you must do better. Survey your audiences (though, assessments are all the rage these day, so be aware of survey overkill) and remember that you can’t please everyone. We have an IT blog at Boise State called BroncoBytes, and a typical post receives feedback ranging from someone thanking me for “explaining and simplifying technology in a way I can understand” to someone else imploring me to “stop using so many technical terms and write for the ‘average’ user.” With communications intended to encompass all of your targeted audiences, you sometimes have to just aim for the middle. In any case, if you’re responsible for communications, check your ego at the door.
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The more you focus on building and maintaining relationships with your customers, the more leeway they’ll give you when IT screws up. The more you get out from behind your computer and interact with your workplace, and the more you align your IT services with your business’s and your customer’s needs (they’re not always the same), the more they’ll realize just what it is your IT organization does every day (if not the middle of the night).
The better your relationships, the easier communication will be. In the end, that’s what successful IT communication comes down to: fostering and maintaining relationships with your customers to create a culture of engagement.
Shad Jessen is the manager of communications and training in the Office of Information Technology at Boise State University in Idaho. With twenty years of experience in higher education (including thirteen years of IT support experience), Shad has served as a help desk and desktop support manager, consulted for higher-education institutions and corporations on knowledge management and Google Apps, written for EDUCAUSE and SupportWorld, and presented at HDI onferences and events.