Has it become a cliché that IT people don’t communicate well, or is it still a pertinent problem in 2022?
I’d love to say it was a cliché.
Compared to a decade ago, IT people are definitely more aware of and better at communication; but it’s still nowhere near as good as it should be.
You may have seen examples of this: the 10-page email which buries the important message, or a particular form of – perhaps unintended – rudeness that shows lack of understanding for others’ perspective.
And this has a real impact. On a basic level, IT users on the receiving end become dissatisfied if they feel they’re not getting the input, information and support needed. Equally, if IT is developing new systems but not listening carefully to the requirements, it skews their perception of what the customer needs. Worse still, with limited feedback and lack of consensus about requirements, IT might be working with only part of the picture – leading to poor service and poor design.
Ultimately, IT’s fed-up customers will go elsewhere, whenever they can.
Communication problems – unique to IT?
I think it’s fair to say that people who gravitate to working in IT are more motivated and interested in technology than communication as their primary, professional driver.
For some people to have an uninterrupted focus on systems, structure and logic is fine – and, in fact, necessary – as long it doesn’t demand human interaction.
In turn, the evolution of IT has, traditionally, created something of an “us and them” culture; a separate entity and a silo which has its own agenda.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t work with the demands of organisations today.
The human dimension in IT
A shifting and well-publicised emphasis on technologies such as artificial intelligence, machine learning and automation seem to suggest that the human dimension in IT is less and less required.
However, all of these still need humans to build AI systems, for example, and make them relevant. And that needs IT people to have a genuine interest in and understanding of human interaction.
For example, the fact that Twitter bots were shown to generate racist content through exposure to inappropriate communications activity on the social media platform showed the need for human understanding in designing and testing these machines.
Introducing more automation means that there is an increasing and ongoing need for human involvement. This is to ensure that things are working properly and generating useful and valuable support for people and organisations.
What should IT people learn about communication – and how?
I was involved as an author for the ITIL Practitioner publication – which preceded the update of ITIL v3 to ITIL 4. The communications section – including ‘communications principles’ – was the first time effective communication had been defined in some detail specifically in the service management world.
Certainly, the need for good communication skills was already acknowledged within service management circles, but the level of detail and emphasis included in ITIL Practitioner was new. And I believe it came as quite a culture shock for some people in the industry, confronted with concepts such as ‘storytelling’ and adopting different communications styles.
Today, however, I think the ideas touched on in ITIL Practitioner –many of which are visible in ITIL 4 – are not only more relevant than ever, they are inescapable.
So, how do these lessons enable IT people – or anyone for that matter – to communicate better?
Communication is a two-way process
In human interaction, we are all communicating all the time. Your communication can’t be successful only by “broadcasting” to others without checking that they have received and understood it. And that includes being aware of others’ body language and facial expressions as a way to help confirm their understanding.
In technology terms, when two electronic devices communicate, they verify that each other’s messages are received. This is a valid principle for human beings too.
Show people you are listening
Through practising active listening, you are constantly playing back what someone has said to you and confirming that you understand it (or not – in which case further communication is needed).
Context is king
There are both good times and bad times to communicate. For example, during a major incident is not the time to shout about hitting your service level agreement. You need to be tuned into the business context and be empathetic about people’s situation and state of mind at any given point before choosing to initiate communication.
Stories – not only for children at bedtime
The value of storytelling skills can’t be underestimated. The neural connections that stories create in our brains mean the information is more likely to stick than bombarding people with reams of data for them to unpick and absorb.
Improving communication will certainly change the game for IT people, especially when engaging and building new systems and services along with other parts of an organisation.
It’s IT’s job to help a business to get the best from technology. Better communication is part of demonstrating increased professionalism; being positive and articulating things to people in ways they can use, in practical terms, without jargon.
This approach goes far beyond what should now be an obsolete image of IT as “magic and wizardry in the basement”. Instead, it means true engagement across an enterprise for business value, through positive knowledge and skills in IT design and service management.
Good communications skills demonstrate the IT industry coming of age as a profession.