Tooting your own horn

A year ago, Catherine Brune realized that her IT group was being left out of the loop. "Our business partners would decide on some software, and we'd get stuck in the middle and know it was going to create havoc, but by then it would be too late," says Brune, vice president of technical shared services/field support at Allstate Insurance Co. in Northbrook, Ill. "We were never at the table. The business had already decided, and we'd be stuck trying to integrate it. We were letting the horse out of the barn way too often because we didn't have a good connection with our business partners."

She decided it was time to do a little marketing.

Gaining control of their destiny is just one reason IT managers market IT within the corporation. Marketing can dispel images of IT as a data processing department and create a new perception of it as an equal business partner. Marketing builds confidence in IT's credibility, the key to getting things done.

"If IT has credibility, I can get a decision over the lunch table. If I don't have it, it can take months," says Dennis Klinger, CIO at Florida Power & Light Co. in Juno Beach, Fla.

Marketing also helps customers look back at the successful things IT has done.

"It's too easy to forget even major initiatives as time goes by, and those have a lifetime cost attached to them," says Scott Heintzeman, CIO at Carlson Hospitality Worldwide in Minneapolis.

The goal of marketing is to integrate IT into the business, says Jean Holley, CIO at USG Corp. in Chicago. "The [ideal] IT organization is one where, in any kind of situation, the business people automatically think, ëWe should have IT here,' rather than calling IT once they've got it all figured out," she says.

But marketing isn't the same as selling, Klinger notes. "It really has to do with good communication and education," he says. "The business can put money into plants, equipment, sales forces and see quantifiable results. With some IT projects, it's harder to see."

When they have to get buy-in on their priorities, successful CIOs market to the CEO and other corporate decision-makers, to key business customers and sometimes even to technologists. Regardless of who the audience is, take the message to them, Holley says.

Holley takes her senior business partners to lunch or, if they don't have time for that, to breakfast or early-morning coffee. She'll even share a car or train commute to get an hour with someone. "Let them talk about their day and why it's out of control," she says. "Then you get a real good feel of where their business challenges are."

But don't be a hero. Your marketing effort shouldn't depend solely on you. "Make sure people in your organization can walk into the meetings and contribute," Holley says.

Brune recently delegated some marketing efforts to a group of business relationship managers who are located with business units but report to her. "They know the business community's needs and dreams," she says. One, for example, is explaining how wireless technology can support his business partner's strategy. Another is helping to pull disparate call center technologies into one consolidated view.

Don't forget to keep the top brass informed about the plans you make with business partners, Heintzeman says, or you may find yourself sucked into a project that's not a corporate priority.

When Holley or her group is pitching to her IT steering committee, they often put on a "show and tell" of hands-on demos that involve the business side. "Sitting in meetings, you can get PowerPointed to death," she says. "But it's hard to go to sleep when you're holding a wireless device and watching your own data appear on the screen."

As you fine-tune your marketing effort, be aware that certain approaches can backfire. "Don't look like you're peddling systems," says Klinger. "Make people understand this is for the good of company."

Do your homework, he suggests. Know exactly what you're capable of, and don't overpromise. "You really want to have your facts and tell the truth," Klinger says.

If you're not well prepared and you get called on something, it may look like you weren't being candid. "You don't want to be labeled as a snake oil salesman," he says. "Make sure you know how value is created in the company and really focus on that."

And be careful about return on investment claims, Heintzeman says. Most projects involve many parts of the organization, and you have to share credit. "You're better off to remind the group what you've all accomplished," he says. "The best sound bite for IT is ëon time and on budget.' "

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